Review – The Sunshine Boys, Savoy Theatre

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Two grumpy old gits with failing memories harbour massive grudges and snipe at each other. One of them prefers to spend as much time as possible lolling around in his jim-jams.  Both attempt to flog tired old gags in a double act that’s way past it’s sell by date.

The Sunshine Boys has a most pungent, room-clearing whiff of someone having a laugh at the Whingers’ expense. Would it prove a bit too close to home (a retirement one of course) for them?

Prolific Neil Simon‘s 1972 play arrives at the Savoy Theatre with an eagerly-anticipated USP: Danny DeVito making his West End stage debut as an old vaudevillian Willie Clark.

Cast opposite him the altogether less diminutive Richard Griffiths as his former stage partner Al Lewis (didn’t he play Grandpa in The Munsters?) and you might believe you’re almost Twins-set for a perfect match.

Lewis and Clark were a successful act nicknamed The Sunshine Boys but they haven’t spoken to each other for for years; they didn’t even speak to each other off-stage during the last year of their act.

CBS invites them to unite for a TV special but can Clark’s nephew Ben (Adam Levy) convince his uncle to put aside his resentments against his former stage partner for them to appear together for one last time?

We’re not giving much away by saying “of course he can” but heavens, Act One is a long old slog getting there.

Now, preview performance and all that and there are no complaints about how much DeVito you get for your buck: his is by far the largest role (Griffiths doesn’t appear until half an hour in). The problem is the play which – like Lewis and Clark’s act – feels terribly dated.

What happened to Neil Simon? Is it us? We used to find him funny but struggled to wring any entertainment value out of his Prisoner of Second Avenue and here that struggle became almost mortal combat. We wanted to laugh, yet barely cracked more than a few smiles before the interval. Andrew struggled with consciousness despite a handful of the audience howling with laughter around him. Phil’s mind wandered off as he admired the realistic condensation effects on the windows of Hildegard Bechtler’s convincingly rundown hotel apartment set and wondered if the over-ripe banana sitting in the fruit bowl was intended as a metaphor.

Act Two is better, but largely because it’s shorter. We get to see them perform their “legendary” doctor sketch with lots of daft medical jokes and letching at a buxom nurse until it all goes terribly wrong which unfortunately is before we get to see the three pounds of liver promised by the shopping list of props recited in Act 1. Apparently three pounds of liver is funnier than two and two even more hilarious than one (in Neil Simon’s mind anyway). Who knew? The business of comedy is a steep learning curve.

Strangely the funniest scene was the one that comes immediately after DeVito and Griffiths perform their schtick. An ailing and bed-ridden Clark spars with his sassy nurse played by Johnnie Fiori and both are superb here: DeVito is at his best but Fiori almost steals the show, getting it spot on as she gives as good as she gets.

On the plus side the play’s resolve is handled deftly and Simon clearly had the good sense not to resort to overt sentimentality. For this we must be grateful.

Hopefully director Thea Sharrock will make cuts to Act One or they’ll pick up the pace before press night, but when Andrew confesses his highlights are seeing Tyne Daly and Rhea Perlman (Carla in Cheers, Mrs DeVito in real life) in the audience you know something must be wrong.



9 Responses to “Review – The Sunshine Boys, Savoy Theatre”

  1. johnnyfox Says:

    Hm. Not looking forward to Press Night now. Although maybe Ms Sharrock has time to re-cast it with Tyne Daly and Rhea Perlman as The Sunshine Girls? That could work.

  2. Naeem Kapadia Says:

    I sense a similar tiredness to the script that I found in the West End production of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” two years ago. Perhaps this type of stock comedy is not the best one to revive; Simon’s Jewish-American family drama “Lost in Yonkers” was given a rich, affecting off-Broadway revival this spring. Hope the early ennui gives way to an energetic performance.

  3. Daniel Wilson Says:

    I saw Tyne and Rhea there too! It was like an 80s TV reunion in the stalls. Whingers, I think you’re being unfair on Neil Simon. Anyone who’s seen his brilliant film, Murder by Death knows how smart and funny his lines are and The Sunshine Boys is equally as good. Danny DeVito was brilliant. (And you’ve got to love a sassy nurse!) Besides, don’t they have, like, a million previews anyway? When I saw it last Monday it was already in great form so by the time it opens it should be even more hilarious. You need to pour some more wine in those glasses.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Murder by Death..seriously? Strangely I caught a bit of it recently and was as bad as I’d remembered. Extraordinary cast but..
      According to IMDB
      “Originally Katharine Hepburn was meant to play a character called Dame Abigail Christian (a spin on Agatha Christie). Hepburn dropped out after hearing Myrna Loy would not do the film.”
      Loy had the right idea.

      • Daniel Wilson Says:

        Oh Phil, you couldn’t be more wrong. Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Cromwell, Elsa Lanchester, Truman Capote and the amazing Nancy Walker. Brilliant film. Brilliant performances. And brilliant Neil Simon.

  4. Tom Says:

    I love Danny DeVito and he’s so right for this part. Hope I’ll be able to see it. (“Murder By Death”: Neil Simon on full comedy throttle. Not to be missed.)

  5. Neil Weedon Says:

    I can only think there must be something wrong with the production. The script is wonderful (I’ve just directed the show in Sutton Coldfield) Unless you are looking for slapstick, which this definitely isn’t, I would suggest you try to appreciate that this show is set in 1984 and concerns two very old and old-fashioned comics going through later life struggling to come to terms, for different reasons, with their lot.

    The story has angst and pathos – and, yes, some comedy – but surely it was written more to examine what happened to the pair after their comedy careers and not to showcase two men providing us with a comedy routine. It’s about the men behind the comedy and not the comedy. It has depth and insight and, in my humble opinion, a light-handed and empathetic touch about declining powers and ageing.

  6. I’d go for one glass. And they should be grateful to get that. I really hope press night does not give us a raft of four star reviews, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.

    The second half broke me, I slumped in my seat just waiting for it to end. We were out of there so fast at the end, I was half way across Waterloo Bridge and people were still applauding!

  7. Dominick Says:

    Saw it last night, DeVito stole the show with an outstanding performance. An enjoyable evening out, perhaps a bit of its time, but I thought that was part of its charm.

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