Chapter Two at Frinton Summer Theatre

Chapter Two by Neil Simon, Frinton Summer Theatre until Sat

Chapter Two by Neil Simon, Frinton Summer Theatre until Saturday

In terms of box-office there's never been a more successful Broadway playwright than Neil Simon. The Bronx-born Jewish New Yorker, 80 last month, has always been the dramatic craftsman with an instinct for how to make audiences laugh. Chapter Two, the third production in the Frinton Summer Season, shows that he knows both how to amuse and to move us.

It's a bittersweet comedy, the first half especially so. George and Jenny (played by Patrick Marlowe and Nelly Harker) are both adjusting to the recent end of their marriages. He's a novelist; she's a divorced actress. Neither is particular keen to start anything again but through well-meaning introductions they come together. In the opening act particularly, the play is full of smart repartee, clever American humour, quips and one-liners.

Behind it all, though, it's a painfully autobiographical piece. George is newly widowed. In 1973, four years before this play came out, Neil Simon's own first wife died of cancer and, as George in the play does, he quickly re-married. So, for all the apparent lightness of touch, Chapter Two centres on the problems of a widowed man with grief still to work through and a weight of guilt on his shoulders.

The couple have huge issues with which to deal. Mapping out their relationship is crucial and director Edward Max gets well-judged and perceptive performances from Patrick Marlowe and Nelly Harker. They move from an initial intrigued amusement over a series of phone-calls to a deepening exploration of anguish and despair as they hope for better things.

Then there are the two other helpful but meddling characters - George's press-agent brother, Leo (Philip Benjamin) and Jenny's friend Faye (Augustina Seymour) who also need to work out whether or to have an affair.

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They make up a tightly knit foursome who guide the production through with style. It's all very Manhattan, played out on a split-room set - the two apartments of George and his wife-to-be.

During the Frinton season you get a chance to see actors in several roles. Nelly Harker has appeared in three shows back to back. In very different parts she's made a strong impression. Watch out for her.

Ivan Howlett