The Sunshine Boys

Neil Simon
Life in Theatre
Epstein Theatre, Hanover Street, Liverpool

As a committed theatre-goer, you no doubt have friends and family who find the very idea of live theatre unappealing or even intimidating (pretentious people, loud voices, posh frocks etc.) My advice? Tempt, threaten or trick them into a trip to Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre. It’s cosy, welcoming and unpretentious—much like its audience. What’s more, the current Life in Theatre production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys could be the ideal cure for any theatre-phobic.

Set in 1972 (when it was premièred), the story concerns Willie Clark, a semi-retired comic actor, living in a rundown hotel, with an agent who is also his long-suffering nephew, Ben. For forty-three years, Willie was one half of the massively popular vaudeville double act, The Sunshine Boys. Eleven years ago, his partner in comedy, Al Lewis, suddenly retired, leaving Willie angry, shocked, hurt and, perhaps worse, one half of a defunct comedy double-act. These days, while having increasing difficulties with his memory, Willie is still struggling to eke out a showbiz living.

One day, when Ben makes his weekly visit armed with groceries and a copy of Variety, he tells Willie of a big opportunity to appear on a major TV network in a show about the history of comedy. The only problem is, they want The Sunshine Boys to get back together to recreate one of their most famous sketches. Can Ben get Willie to speak to Al? Can the two of them recreate the magic one last time?

Neil Simon is a truly great comedy writer. His best works show the occasionally cruel, often painful and invariably poignant human truths that lie behind enduring comedy scripts. The opening scenes of The Sunshine Boys are a masterclass of the art form, displaying the writer’s unwavering focus on the key elements of structure at the heart of all successful duologues (comedic and dramatic): somebody wants something, but somebody else keeps getting in the way. Thus, Ben wants Willie to team up once more with Al, but Willie’s hatred of Al blocks the way.

Next, when Willie and Al at last meet, each clearly wants to do the TV show, but neither can quite let go of their shared history. All that anger, resentment, hurt and bitterness comes to an hilarious head when Willie decides to ‘freshen up’ their classic sketch (in which a tax inspector calls on a doctor) by changing the opening line. Does it really matter if Willie-the-doctor answers a knock at the door with ‘Enter!’ rather than ‘Come in!’? Of course it does! (Cue the play’s most brilliant running gag).

The 1975 film adaptation of The Sunshine Boys gave Walter Matthau and George Burns the chance to play this curmudgeonly duo. Alan Stocks’s take on Al has much of the quiet, deft comic touch of Burns, only raising his voice when the tensions demand it. Andrew Schofield, as Willie, trades in Matthau for Zero Mostel—which is fine by me. Matthau was a fine actor of comedy and drama, but Zero was a comedic gem. Besides delivering his lines with well-seasoned grump, Schofield mugs and clowns until the last drop of humour is wrung from every line and action. The auditorium rings with laughter throughout act one.

After the interval, the fragile truce between Lewis and Clark begins to break down during rehearsals for the TV show. Here the laughter seems more forced (perhaps, naturally so, given this is the recreation of a vaudeville sketch). Forty years on from its première, the appearance of the voluptuous comedy nurse splits the audience into those happily complicit and those squirming more than slightly, as Willie’s doctor threatens to make Benny Hill look like Ben Elton. The excellent Helen Carter does her best in this brief interlude, but is clearly more at home playing a very different kind of nurse, later in the piece. Neither role makes much of Carter’s considerable talent, but, if you’re with the squirmers rather than the guffawers, be consoled; the play soon moves on.

The finale is Neil Simon at his most ironic and subtle, blending comedy and pathos with expert judgement.

The comic timing throughout is spot on, with not a single laugh (and there are plenty) being “kicked”. Stephen Fletcher deserves commendation in the thankless yet essential straight-man’s role of Ben, while Liam Tobin and Michael Fletcher (as TV director and assistant) have great fun ad-libbing the audience back to their seats post-interval.

Stephen Fletcher’s excellent direction displays the necessary lightness of touch required to exploit such well-written comedy. Neat flourishes (such as the “ventilation hatch” in the seat of Willie’s pyjama-bottoms) are very neatly played, allowing the audience to make discoveries, rather than sticking up a sign which says ‘This is a joke. Laugh now!’

Go. You’ll laugh a lot. Better still, take along one of those friends who can’t stand theatre. The warm combination of Neil Simon and the Epstein Theatre might just convert them.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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