Sunshine Boys dazzle on stage

The Sunshine Boys: Neil Simon, The Gallery Players : Sir John Mills Theatre IpswichTwo waspish old vaudeville actors, partners in a comedy double act, after 40 years come to hate each other.

The Sunshine Boys: Neil Simon, The Gallery Players : Sir John Mills Theatre Ipswich

Two waspish old vaudeville actors, partners in a comedy double act, after 40 years come to hate each other. In the hands of Neil Simon the animosity coming mainly at least from one side, means a string of the most brilliantly savage put downs and insults.

It's very Jewish American humour, a formidable challenge for British actors; but Gallery Players give us a treat. The cantankerousness, funny though it is, forms only the surface. Deeper down is a touching examination of the underlying, all but invisible, bond between them, which Steve Wooldridge's production catches well.

The two feuding former stars - Willie Clark and Al Lewis (Peter Phillips and Conrad Lord) had refused to speak to each other for the last year while they were still performing. The silence carried on for more than a decade after they'd packed it. The main action of the play revolves around what happens when, through the efforts of Willie's agent nephew Ben (Michael Cook) a TV channel seeks to get this seriously grumpy pair into a studio as part of a special on the history of comedy.


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What we come to understand is that when two people work together in the pressure of the public eye for so long, hairline cracks can build into cavernous divides. Willie admits that his resentment now is that when Al had decided to retire, he'd virtually retired Willie too; they were so much a pair.

Al had packed it all, he says, in because he could take no more of the feuding. So why had they stayed together for so long? Willie is unequivocal - it's because Al was terrific - 'As an actor, nobody could touch him. As a person, nobody wanted to touch him'. There's always a sting in the tale from Willie.

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It's a play full of well-delivered cutting lines; there's nostalgia, sentiment avoiding mawkishness, and plenty of clever comic business - like the confusions about opening the door of Willie's flat. On a larger scale we get a sense of what the act was once like. All goes well until the rows resurface in the studio.

The highlights are the scenes between the two old men, especially when they are on their own together and when the mood swings from weariness to shaking, but never speechless rage. Peter Phillips especially, in what is a very big role, reflects the inner tortures of an unquiet man wearing a masking layer of bitter wit.

A good play, well worth a quality revival.

Ivan Howlett

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