Director Maggie Norris refers to The Sunshine Boys as “a serious comedy” and its seriousness is beyond dispute. Despite Neil Simon’s neatly crafted gags and the wit and irony of the ending that is welcomed with an anticipatory gust of laughter, much of the play casts a beady eye on the frailties of old age.
Willie Clark sits in his pyjamas in his much-reduced apartment watching soap operas on television when he is not accidentally disconnecting it and periodically defeated by the challenge of working the lock on his door. When his nephew/agent Ben arrives for his weekly visit - Willie’s window on the world – he is subjected to complaints and insults by his uncle. There is plenty of good grumpy old man humour, but it can be pretty uncomfortable watching Willie rage against the dying of the light, or at least the memory.
Officially, he's still active in showbusiness, but the only work Ben can offer is a television retrospective on vaudeville teaming Willie with his former partner Al Lewis, who's willing to come out of retirement for the show. Despite Willie’s feud with Al (based on such things as 43 years of being jabbed in the chest with his forefinger), they get together, but the dress rehearsal ends in an acrimonious argument followed by Willie’s non-life-threatening heart attack.
Despite a cast of seven, The Sunshine Boys is essentially a three-hander, though Melanie La Barrie makes her mark as the sour-tempered sweet-toothed nurse who tends to Willie after his studio collapse. In the somewhat thankless part of Ben, Dylan Charles is a loyal and capable straight man.
As the Sunshine Boys themselves, Malcolm Rennie and Lou Hirsch both exploit and subvert the traditional physical contrast of the double act – Hirsch’s short stout Al Lewis lugubrious and self-contained leaving the wild excesses to Rennie, a sort of Sid Caesar without the dignity. Both fuse pathos and comedy expertly, with Rennie’s Willie Clark a triumph of manic, seemingly out-of-control precision.
Norris’ excellent production benefits greatly from the creative input of Mic Pool (sound and video) and designer Katrina Lindsay, notably in the transformation of Willie’s apartment into a television studio complete not only with modern gadgetry but also haunting black-and-white images of singers, comedians, escapologists and aerialists in a further tribute to the world of vaudeville.
- Ron Simpson