An Anglo-American, top-notch acting team – Richard Griffiths and Danny DeVito – lead a revival of this affectionate comedy by Neil Simon some 40 years after its first performance on Broadway. That period is also significant in the context of the play, because it is about a highly successful vaudeville comedy pairing who trod the boards together for more than 40 years before one of them opted for retirement, destroying the winning formula in the process.
Willie Clark (Danny DeVito) lives in a shabby hotel. His nephew Ben (played by Adam Levy) visits him regularly and brings him essentials such as milk which Willie never consumes. More importantly, Ben brings Willie the latest edition of Variety – a stage newspaper which provides him with entertainment gossip and news about the demise of actors and producers he once knew or worked with. Ben is an agent and has been approached by one of the big TV networks to reunite Willie and his now estranged ex-partner, Al Lewis (played by Richard Griffiths), for a TV special. The problem is that the pair have not spoken for 12 years, and Willie is still fuming about Al's decision to retire.
Reluctantly, Willie eventually agrees to do the TV show, and a date is set for a rehearsal at Willie's hotel room. Of course, there is friction when they meet to the extent that Willie ignores Al when he arrives by hiding behind the kitchen curtain. And when they do eventually start the rehearsal, they cannot even agree on the layout of the furniture for a sketch that they performed hundreds of times. Things do not get any better when they get into the TV studio, and Willie's health suffers as a consequence.
Danny DeVito makes his West End debut here and gets the lion's share of the show both in terms of on-stage time and script. In fact, we don't get to see Richard Griffiths until midway through the first half, and he is absent for quite a bit of the second half too. When they do appear together, the considerable difference in their physical size does add to the comic set-up – a point not lost on the producers either it seems as even the programme cover sports the two actors facing each other in a tight, side view photo.
As you can imagine with actors of this calibre, the timing is pretty spot on throughout. Danny DeVito is a petulant and cranky Willie, who would be difficult to get on with in any line of work. He is determined to get his own back for Al's decision to retire, inventing a different opening when they rehearse the sketch: 'The doctor will see you now'. Richard Griffiths seemed a little uncomfortable with his American accent, but otherwise provides a perfect counterpoise, more accommodating and less peevish than Mr DeVito's Willie. When they eventually start rehearsals in the TV studio, Mr Griffiths enters balancing an ill-fitting wig on his head which, for me, was actually the best comic moment of the scene.
I enjoyed Adam Levy's performance as nephew Ben, which convincingly blended real affection for uncle Willie with the eager dynamism of a theatrical agent. And Johnnie Fiori produces a polished and confident performance as the nurse, handling the belligerent Willie like a naughty schoolboy.
In the end, the comics are destined to spend more time together than they bargained for, but I won't spoil the ending. It is rather predictable so there aren't too many surprises in store here. And there are relatively few laughs in what is a low-key kind of comedy that now, rather sadly, seems dated. The jokes are hardly what one might describe as sophisticated, and there are no laugh-out-load moments at all – quite a contrast to the previous night when I was across the other side of the Strand at Joe Orton's 'What The Butler Saw', and which is in a very different league, in spite of it being a little older. The stars here may have immaculate credentials, but the play itself does not have the lustre to match.
"what makes the play profoundly touching as well as funny is Simon's understanding of the obduracy, childishness and professional neglect that are often inseparable from old age...a richly resonant comedy "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Limp revival...Though there are many real-life examples of "little and large" comedy pairings, these two actors – each excellent in their different ways – never convince you that Simon's fictional duo had spent more than 40 years as a headlining vaudeville double act...A disappointment "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Thea Sharrock’s production is funny and affectionate, but needs more snap. "
Henry Hitchins for The Evening Standard
"This deliciously quirky couple strike great showers of comic sparks off each other...a pitch-perfect production that beautifully captures fleeting moments of tenderness in the comedy without ever turning mushy...This is a golden evening that finds the West End at the top of its game. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph