Neil Simon’s classic American play about the reluctant reunion of a once great comedy duo is another great idea – and must-see show – from the perennially impressive Life in Theatre productions. The deliberate ‘off Broadway’ direction the company has taken is really setting it apart from anything else in the city, having hit onto a winning formula of staging great theatre suitable for all.
The play centres around Willie Clark (Alan Stocks), who has hit the skids partly as a result of his bitterness at his old act’s demise, and partly because of his own cantankerous pettiness, that even sees him claim not to remember the name of his nephew’s kids. His nephew Ben (Stephen Fletcher, who also directs), we learn, is not only his only living relative but practically his only connection to the outside world.
His former partner Al Lewis (Andrew Schofield), who walked out on their act, the titular Sunshine Boys, without discussion a decade before, certainly appears to have fared better over the years; and the resentment builds when they attempt to reunite for a TV special.
Like their characters, Stocks and Schofield have also worked well together for years, so – as if there was ever any doubt – audiences are in safe hands with this set up, that calls for slapstick, one-liners and some beautifully written gags (Lewis’s unwittingly big reveal at the end is one of the most satisfying, joyfully groan-enducing payoffs an audience could wish for). Like an old married couple, decades of resentment and hurt come to the surface again between the two, as Stocks rants and raves and Schofield plays the half innocent, half wind-up merchant.
Old school Americana through and through, from the bell bottoms and Francis White Robinson’s stylistic lighting to Liam Tobin’s cheesy TV special announcer and Helen Carter’s Tex Avery style pneumatic nurse, the production is evocative, familiar, high quality yet incredibly comfortable – like turning on any of those iconic US sitcoms of the 70s and 80s.
And it’s almost not the Lewis and Clark double act that is the most interesting thing about this play; the scenes between Clark and his frustrated, loyal nephew are bursting with incredible dialogue and acted with a real warmth and tenderness by Stocks and Fletcher (sporting an amazing period do).
When it’s done right at the Epstein – as it is indeed with The Sunshine Boys – the end result brings to mind half the welcoming inclusivity of the Royal Court, half the high quality of the Playhouse. This production just sings. And it would be great to see it have a life outside of this run – and the city.