This new production of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys might be considered one of the hottest tickets of the summer, featuring as it does the West End debut of Danny De Vito and the return to the stage of Richard Griffiths. The tale is of Willie Clarke and Al Lewis, a long-suffering former vaudeville comedy act whose relationship over the 40 years of their career deteriorated so badly that they didn’t even to speak to each other off-stage for the final year. But when a television network decides to put on a comedy retrospective more than a decade later and call on Lewis and Clarke to reprise their schtick one more time, it seems that old animosities are still fresh in the mind of some.
I saw the show in preview (and I have to say I find it a little cheeky to have a 3 week preview period for something clearly advertised as a limited 12 week run) and the best thing I could say about it was the amount of room for improvement. Thea Sharrock’s production felt extremely lethargic, especially in the interminable first half, with much more zip and zing needed by all concerned. De Vito’s bitterly retired Clark plods a little too much and needs more connection with his environment, especially with his nephew and hapless agent Ben, a hard-working Adam Levy, who is pushing for the reunion. And when Griffiths finally arrives on the scene, the cantankerousness is palpable but this just isn’t paired with any sense of the history between the characters.
Part of this will come as the run progresses, actors dig deeper into their character and the director gets a stronger handle on things. But part of it is also the very old-fashioned nature of Simon’s script. This is old-school through and through and lacks any real kind of freshness or insight into the corrosive allure of fame and the depths of backstage hostility. Jokes are laboured and oft repeated, the eventual reveal of their most famous sketch largely falls flat, the story becomes one in which we have very little reason to invest. The saving grace comes with the penultimate scene and a stellar cameo from Johnnie Fiori as a whip-sharp nurse who gives as good as she gets whilst looking after a convalescent comic as the humour feels so much more natural here, it flows easily rather than the forced feel of the first act which tries too hard and for me, fails.
It should be stated this was far from the popular view though. The audience around us seemed to love it but had most likely already made up their mind to – De Vito got a pernicious round of applause on his arrival on stage, a most odious habit – and Simon’s writing does have that 70s comedy feel that will appeal to many. I’ll say again, some aspects may well improve as the run progresses, though it is hard to shake the feeling that much of what was onstage was a deliberate choice and that is the type of unchallenging, uninspiring theatre that just coasts along and which I cannot stand. When a play about two tired and grumpy men leaves you feeling tired and grumpy too, something has gone wrong.