Oliver Cotton's new play premieres at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, starring Maureen Lipman, Harry Shearer and John Bowe
That excellent, saturnine actor Oliver Cotton, currently appearing in Peter Nichols's adultery drama Passion Play at the Duke of York's, has a few skeletons rattling around in his own creative closet about marital harmony, and they are ebulliently aired in his enjoyably imperfect new play at the Park.
What starts as a touching "Come Dancing" sketch between two married Brooklyn septuagenarians – Maureen Lipman and The Simpsons voice-over star Harry Shearer as Elli and Joe – soon develops into a dangerous triple threat with Joe's estranged brother, Billy, turning up out of the blue and into their Brooklyn apartment. It's 1986.
Billy, played on a rush of energy and adrenalin by one-time RSC stalwart John Bowe, claims to have shot down in cold blood a man he thinks is a Nazi war criminal. He hasn't seen his brother in 30 years and apparently made off with his financial stake in the family business – we never know what that was – to get started as a property dealer in Ohio. He arrives, unannounced, and on the run, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and an ill-fitting suit, with a dozen cartons of Chinese take-away.
While David Grindley's production affably accommodates all the bumps and oddities in Cotton's text, it seems more than peculiar that Joe sits dumbstruck and silent while Billy rages drunkenly on about the grisly events at the Daytona beach swimming pool where he's stalked the war criminal; he meekly interjects, "but the Russians shot him," planting the all-important seed of doubt as to the validity of Billy's obsession.
But this is almost as nothing to the second act revelation, which brings Maureen Lipman back to the stage – I thought she must have nipped off for a mid-summer break in Daytona herself – and piles up the real reasons for fall-out between the brothers; the marriage has not been what it seems, nor was Billy's with Alice out in Ohio.
The double life of a war criminal is a metaphor of deception in the most ordinary of lives, even to the extent of blurring the true nature of identity. The trouble is that while we learn quite a lot more about Billy and Elli than we bargained for, poor old Joe is left to hang out and dry, and Shearer suggests far too interesting a Jewish character, in outline at least, for this to be dramatically plausible.
We are left with the senior dance competition still looming and Elli and Joe tripping the light fantastic once more by special request. There's a streak of pain and passion beneath the surface, but the surface is not all that bright - Harold Pinter re-written by Neil Simon it's not quite - and these fine actors are not as funny as they should be. Lipman even resorts to an unwise ad-lib as a stray spring roll hits the deck: "Spring is in the air." Hmmm… if only.
See also: Oliver's Cotton's guest blog on the 'two hat conundrum' of writing and acting