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The Sunshine Boys

Neil Simon
Savoy Theatre

Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths Credit: Johan Persson
Danny DeVito Credit: Johan Persson
Richard Griffiths and Adam Levy Credit: Johan Persson

The Sunshine Boys is, like Driving Miss Daisy, one of those star vehicles for experienced actors who fancy a little adulation from their devoted admirers.

The film version was graced by Walter Matthau and George Burns and when the play made it to TV, Woody Allen and Peter Falk were the leads.

It says something that Thea Sharrock and her producers have the influence to bring Danny DeVito across the Atlantic and pair him with Richard Griffiths (with whom the director has worked on a couple of previous occasions, most memorably on Equus), fresh from Harry Potter land.

With a limited run, this kind of casting guarantees good ticket sales and the Neil Simon reputation will do no harm either. He is still probably best known for The Odd Couple and, while the names might be different, the vaudeville double act Lewis and Clark (presumably named after the explorers who traversed the North American continent) could easily be 40-year-older versions of Oscar and Felix.

The play opens in the grim hotel-apartment of DeVito's Willie Clark, which, even 40 years before the 1970s when the play is set, would have seemed shabby and old-fashioned.

As we discover during his exchanges with nephew / agent Ben Silverman, Adam Levy making a fine foil for the star, selectively deaf but undeniably forgetful Willie is living in the past, recalling the 43 years of his triumphant double act with Al Lewis.

This ended in acrimony so bitter that even 11 years after the event it imitates the fallout from the worst kind of divorce.

The shtick here is that a major broadcaster wants to show a history of vaudeville featuring Lewis and Clark reprising one of their most famous turns, The Doctor and the Taxman.

A significant proportion of the first half of the play is devoted to Ben's worthy efforts to persuade his cussed old uncle that he should meet his bête noire one more time.

This section features many good gags both verbal and visual that will undoubtedly make any visitor laugh out loud on a pretty regular basis.

Strangely, the arrival of the worthy Griffiths playing Al is a little muted. While Willie is a hyperactive extrovert, Al behaves far too much like a normal sensitive human being perhaps a respectable, retired lawyer or accountant, rather than an out and out comic. While this may be realistic, it slows down the comedy.

When we finally get to the sketch after the interval, it is an unalloyed pleasure and following an unexpectedly early conclusion, leads to a degree of pathos that had never seemed likely in the earlier scenes.

Danny DeVito makes the most of his belated West End debut in a highly entertaining performance that shows just how versatile actor an he is. Richard Griffiths does not get the same opportunities and in effect, plays the straight man with self-effacing good grace, allowing his partner almost all of the best lines.

With this kind of casting and a comedy that is at times extremely funny, the producers should have little concern about the success of their venture. It is to be noted that this is the first but probably not the last show to announce a closing date to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher