In the folio of your average playwright, I Ought to be in Pictures would sit quite comfortably. Within the canon of the by-no-means average Neil Simon it figures as a distinctly lesser work than The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite or any of the 20 or 30 others that we know so well. It is a piece larded with schmaltz and not as liberally decorated with one-liners as we have come to expect.
At the age of 19, Libby hitches her way from New York to Hollywood to catch up with the screenwriter father, Herb, who walked out on her and her mother and brother 16 years earlier. She'd also like to be a film star and informs the errant pa that he owes it to her to fix it, despite the fact that she is clearly perceived to be an experience- and talent-free zone.
It transpires, however, that Herb is seriously blocked, both professionally and emotionally, and that Libby's opportunities to brush up against the glitz rest more with his part-time girlfriend, Steffy, a make-up artist at Columbia studios, and with her own street-wise enterprise in finding work as a car parking attendant at star parties.
To complete the plot, Libby leaves to go back home and Herb sits down and starts typing. This isn't, in short, a play overburdened with storyline: even Steffy's pincer movement on her commitment-phobic Tuesday date make only incremental headway with Herb. What we must concern ourselves with is the journey of mutual discovery made by father and daughter which is, in all honesty, unremarkable and which leads, cloyingly, unbelievably and tackily to a sort of telephonic reconciliation also between Herb and his long-abandoned wife and son.
As one would expect from any Neil Simon script, there are moments when the one-liners come at you like firecrackers, but Laurie Sansom's production for the SJT all too easily loses momentum in the longueurs in between. He is not helped by a performance from Bill Champion as Herb that is more laid-back and under-powered English Home Counties than edgily coiled and aggressive American Jewish. Laura Doddington's Libby has all the ballsy self-confidence of the largely autodidact late teenager and segues seamlessly to reveal the vulnerability this conceals. Holding the ring between these two, Julie Hewlett's Steffy is a finely judged stand-off foil.
Watching a great craftsman like Simon at work is never wasted time - his use here of the long-dead grandma as the fount of all wisdom is a masterly delight. But we're spoilt by knowing how much better he is capable of.
- Ian Watson