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The Sunshine Boys

Neil Simon
Coliseum Theatre, Oldham
(2010)

The Sunshone Boys production photo

Oldham Coliseum takes a step back into the world of vaudeville—the American equivalent of British music hall—with Neil Simon's play about the reunion of a famous comedy double act more than a decade after an acrimonious split.

Lewis and Clark were 'The Sunshine Boys', one of the top US double acts of their day, who appeared regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show and at theatres all over the country performing the same routines for over forty years. When Al Lewis suddenly announced his retirement, the acrimony that had building up for many years came to a head and they didn't speak again for eleven years. They are forced to end their silence when Willie Clark's agent nephew Ben persuades them to accept an offer from CBS to perform one of their sketches for a TV special on the history of comedy, but reuniting even for one day may prove too much for the old partners.

Neil Simon is often thought of as the American equivalent of our Alan Ayckbourn; while Simon isn't as adventurous with form as Ayckbourn—sticking pretty firmly to conventional play structure with some minor variations in, for example, his hotel suite suites—they are both very accomplished at layering popular comedy onto a very dark and painful core. Here a lot of the verbal comedy comes from old Jewish comics exchanging jibes, which Simon excels at, but behind it is a fear and sadness of becoming old, forgotten, unwanted and dependent on others after years of being famous and loved throughout the country.

Joyce Branagh's production has some interesting variations in pace. Some of the bickering isn't delivered as quickly as might be expected for what is basically a crosstalk routine brought into a realistic situation, but somehow it still works and actually makes it more real and gives it more of an emotional edge without losing too much from the humour. The sketch itself is delivered at full pace with some very outdated humour and delivery, which is just how it should be, but some of the lines still hit the comedy mark.

Richard Foxton's set also hits the right old-fashioned notes, with a faded vaudeville proscenium arch with missing bulbs and bits of old posters hanging off it surrounding Willie's scruffy, run-down apartment, which later turns into the colourful set for the sketch in the TV studio and back to the apartment. According to the programme, the play is set in the mid 1980s more than a decade after it was written, but this works perfectly well.

Robert Pickavance is a very nervy Willie with a sharp tongue and an unwillingness to give in to retirement despite his fading fame and memory for lines. He becomes remarkably spritely when he starts to rehearse in the TV studio, but this is quite plausible for someone who loved performing and has been sat around not doing it for years, and he certainly suffers the consequences of his over-eagerness in quite a severe way.

His partnership with the chameleonic David Fielder, who is often unrecognisable from one play to the next as he changes himself physically for each role, works very well as a basis for comedy and also as a demonstration of how resentment and dependency so often go hand-in-hand. Fielder still has one or two moments that seem a little false, but these will no doubt smooth over during the run. Generally this is a great pairing and both give very strong performances.

There is also a lovely, natural performance from Dominic Gately as nephew Ben. His role isn't as obviously comic as the others but he gets across some lovely little comic touches in his effortlessly natural performance that shows a real human concern for his uncle.

Branagh has created for the Coliseum a nicely-rounded production stuffed with plenty of comedy but with a genuine emotional heart of a play that still works nearly forty years on from its first production, showing that good comedy can traverse the generations whether it is of the Lewis and Clark variety or Neil Simon's darker humour.

Until 23 October 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton