Stroke of Luck (Park Theatre)
Larry Belling's new play starring Tim Pigott-Smith opened at the Park Theatre last week
Larry Belling claims to be the oldest first-time playwright in London, and no-one's arguing. All sorts of interesting stuff must slip through the usual sieves and channels, and if the fringe isn't going to change the world, it can serve a purpose in sifting the sediment.
Stroke of Luck is not a vintage play, but it has the unmistakable bush of a fine old wine and wisdom to match. At a mere 75 years young, Belling, a former New York press agent, documentary film narrator and rock music manager, has at last dramatized something that happened at his mother's memorial service: his elderly father announced he was marrying his young nurse.
No doubt characters in the play correspond to some in Belling's own life. But he uses the bombshell to detonate that of a Long Island King Lear, retired TV repair man and stroke victim, Lester Riley – it's not just coincidence that Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays him, has recently played the testy monarch at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – and serve up a fresh family drama with a twist.
Lester's in a retirement home, attended by his intended, sexy Japanese Nurse Lily Hashimoto (Julia Sandiford), and three grouchy grown-up children from whom he's basically estranged: Munny (Andrew Langtree), his eldest, and a "certified public accountant;" Ike (Fergal McElherron), a loose cannon just out of jail; and Cory (Kirsty Malpass), a chaotic divorcée who plays poker (illegally) on the internet and has an intense cleanliness obsession.
The idea is to bring the family together, shake things up a bit, sort out the money and check out with a clean winding sheet; as Lester says, "we're all cremated equal". Most of all, Lester wants to do right by his dead wife, Helen (Pamela Miles), who appears in several touching ghost-like interludes, having worked in child care and assorted charities all her life.
There is also an unseen handicapped fourth child, Franklin, who must be looked after. Belling is tying up loose ends in a man's life – which has been under-pinned, although nobody knew it, by untold wealth; he saved the day when a TV set blew and the local Mafia syndicate were going to lose all their bets – and restore lost love.
It's a carefully plotted piece, and nicely judged in Kate Golledge's production, but it falls short of being inspirational, for all its wry humour and worldly wisdom. The rapid switches of location and sudden storms (for no reason) suggest this might have been a screenplay, and nothing quite adds up with the final revelations.
But Pigott-Smith, wheelchair-bound and baseball cap at a jaunty angle, gives a performance of great skill and good humour, liberated by his own mischievousness into a twilight zone of carefree reparation, with plenty of rude jokes and a running gag about Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante. A pleasant surprise.