“I’m a joke and you know everything”
The arrival of a new play in the West End is something to be celebrated but I wish that I liked Oliver Cotton’s Daytona more than I did, its dull convention and wayward plotting making it an old-fashioned and frustrating experience rather than a shining beacon of new writing. Originally premiered at the Park Theatre last year before setting off on a brief UK tour, David Grindley’s production has been remounted for a limited run in the Theatre Royal Haymarket before heading out to the shires once again where perhaps it will gain more love than it did from me.
Set in mid-80s New York, retired Jewish couple Joe and Elli pass their time bickering amiably and rehearsing for their next ballroom dancing competition but their domestic bliss is shattered by the arrival of Joe’s brother, unseen for the last 30 years and bringing with him two huge, weighty issues from the past. The first concerns the shocking settling of an old score with a concentration camp guard, the second is a more intimate revelation that tumbles up everything we know about this trio and their complicated personal history.
But though there are three sides to this story, three main characters, Cotton’s writing leaves them most unbalanced indeed. He takes on the somewhat-grandstanding role of Billy in all its messy complexity, as past love and memory conspire to near-overwhelm him and Maureen Lipman’s Elli recovers from being shunted offstage for most of the first act to dominate the second with aplomb. Consequently, in the face of these two big performances, Harry Shearer’s Joe is left to sit and listen, a lot.
He’s a non-entity of a person really, dramatically he ends up unconvincing as he has to remain largely unresponsive in the face of huge revelation and underwritten as he is, it’s hard to care too much about him in the end. And this construction of grand speechifying is repeated a lot, robbing the play of any narrative heft or sense of real progression, making it a curious choice to bring into the West End where it is hard to see how it will gain the audience it needs.