Romantic Comedy: Cambridge Arts Theatre

Romantic Comedy by Bernard Slade, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday (September 1)

Romantic Comedy by Bernard Slade, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday (September 1)

Bernard Slade's 1979 hit play is exactly what its title suggests. It's a bittersweet romantic comedy, a 'rom com' as cinema buffs sometimes like to call the likes of The Philadelphia Story and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Anthony Perkins and Mia Farrow played it on Broadway the first time around. Tom Conti has starred in it twice - when it came to London in 1982 playing opposite Pauline Collins. Now, twenty-five years on, he's touring with it again, this time paired with Kate Atkinson and directing himself.

Tom Conti plays Jason Carmichael a successful Broadway playwright who's just split up with his writing partner, an event that happens to coincide with his getting married.

Phoebe Craddock (Kate Atkinson) is a young, gauche aspiring writer. He recognises a talent in her and takes her on as his new partner. After one embarrassing flop they have a long run of successes.

The partnership works brilliantly because he is moulding her skills while she, in turn, inspires him with her originality. However, they appear not to realise - as we soon grasp - that their bond goes far beyond professional ties.

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The two live out a charade, neither bringing themselves to grasp the moment and reveal their real feelings

He, of course, is unavailable in that he's married. Then, after nine years of working together things blow up between Phoebe and Jason. So she goes off and gets married herself. They are victims, as Hemingway said of Marlene Dietrich - and it's quoted in the play - of 'unsynchronised passion.'

The emotional conundrum beguiles us. To make it all work writer and cast have to juggle with both the comedy and the romance. The comedy needs to be keen and ironic, the romance to teeter on the edge. Will he tell her, why doesn't she say what she really feels? A pinch too much of emotion and it becomes sugary.

In fact, the cast treads the line sure-footedly. Conti's strength, wit and charisma are matched by Atkinson's off-the-wall and challenging individuality.

The scene when, uncontrollably angry and bitterly disappointed in him, she storms off, is brilliantly done. For a while there are echoes of A Star is Born - his career seems to plunge as hers continues to ascend.

Watching to see if two nicely flawed opposites come together is the essential tension of a romantic comedy.

I'm not telling you if they do.

Ivan Howlett

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