After the shame of being admonished by a Sainsbury’s perishables supervisor for tap dancing in the aisles, we decided that we had to temporarily wean ourselves off musicals. To assuage the inevitable cold turkey that would follow if the cast didn’t spontaneously burst into song at each opportunity, we decided that Neil Simon and Joe Orton would be the ideal antidote to an overdose of chorus boys, so the Strand was to be our second home over a gloomy bank holiday weekend.
First up was Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito, making his West End debut, in Neil Simon’s classic 1972 play about a warring vaudeville act reunited for a TV special. I have always been a sucker for a Hollywood star on a British stage (Elizabeth Taylor’s old fashioned glamour in The Little Foxes, Martin Sheen sensational in tight whities in The Normal Heart, Madonna inaudibly overacting in Up For Grabs, Kim Catrall and Joan Collins twenty years apart in Private Lives) and Mr DeVito does not disappoint in what is essentially a masterclass in comic acting.
We opted to day seat for this and at £10 for front row stalls with a lowish stage these must be the best bargain in West End at the moment. To observe two master craftsmen at work in such close proximity is a total privilege.
Set in the 1970’s and opening in a rundown extended stay New York hotel, a dishevelled, pyjama clad former “Sunshine Boy” Willie Clark, Danny DeVito, gets his weekly visit from his nephew and agent Ben, Adam Levy, a study in exasperation. Ben has been contacted by CBS who would like to resurrect his uncle's act for a one night only history of comedy. The only hiccup is the fact that Willie has not spoken to his former partner Al Lewis, Richard Griffiths, for over a decade and bears the mother of all grudges and blames Al for his enforced early retirement.
DeVito is extraordinary and is able to turn the most innocuous of phrases into a comic gem. Griffiths, normally expected to be the recipient of all the plaudits, is his usual wonderful self, but is virtually a foil for a magnificent DeVito who totally inhabits his role, defensive, bitter and still waiting for another bite of the cherry. Having said that, a virtually silent routine with both curmudgeons arranging furniture really has to be seen to be believed and is on par with the best of Laurel and Hardy, perfectly encapsulating a symbiotic professional relationship that has turned sour.
The second act sees a run through of the Sunshine Boys most famous routine and an eventual rapprochement that finds them eternally inseparable, reminiscing and arguing until their appointment with their maker.
A special mention to a scene stealing Johnnie Fiori as a sassy, seen-it-all-before nurse who seems to be the only person who can play DeVito’s Willie at his own game, with a steady stream of gentle and not so gentle put-downs.
This must have looked like a producers dream on paper and it works like a dream on stage. I really don’t know how much direction Thea Sharrock would have to give to such arch practioners as Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths and maybe it was simply a case of handing them the ball and letting them run with it, but whatever she and they have done, it looks like a gold plated hit to me. A study in regret, loss and eventual redemption which, despite its age, does not feel remotely dated. I haven’t laughed so much since One Man two Guvnors at the National last year and I cannot think of higher praise.
Booking until 28 July 2012, a masterclass in comic acting - The Sunshine Boys