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Review Round-up: A mostly bright reception for Sunshine Boys

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A major revival of Neil Simon's 1972 comedy The Sunshine Boys opened at the Savoy Theatre last night (17 May 2012, previews from 27 April). Starring Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths it tells the story of two old vaudevillians, former comedy partners who have been bitterly estranged for more than a decade and are suddenly forced into a reunion.

Also in the cast are Rebecca Blackstone , Nick Blakeley , Peter Cadden, Johnnie Fiori, Adam Levy and William Maxwell. Thea Sharrock directs, with designs by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Neil Austin and sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph.

Michael Coveney

"What a treat, to have Danny DeVito, a folded-in-half version of Richard Griffiths, but much livelier and more puckish, and Griffiths himself, who’s grown even bigger and more bloated than Moby Dick, in Neil Simon’s brilliant 1972 Broadway comedy about two old vaudevillians - 'The Sunshine Boys' - forced into a reunion... This is a play as much about growing old, and getting lonely, as it is one about the end of variety, and the world of comics in the Catskills that Simon helped translate into television comedy and chat shows. Willie is a sad, fading figure at the end – it’s really his, and DeVito’s, play – attended by a jolly, big black nurse (Johnnie Fiori) whom he listlessly tries to seduce while sinking into his own legend. The play resonates with wonderful cross-talk and gag- spinning, from the minute DeVito hears his kitchen kettle whistling and picks up the telephone receiver with a bemused “Hello.” And it has a dying fall. DeVito capers like a dwarfish devil, a madcap professor, an irascible uncle (his nephew brings him packet soups and his copy of Variety every Wednesday), encapsulating most movingly that sense of tigerish desperation that old performers visit on their agents."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Willie Clark is a bygone vaudeville star, nagging his agent for work even when the only auditions in town are for an all-black musical. 'I can do black!' he snaps. 'I did it in 1928, when you could understand all the words.' Clever: both a startling joke and confirmation that Willie is a performer who hasn’t moved with the times and won’t. Five minutes in and Neil Simon, the author, has laid out the possibilities of both comedy and sadness. Danny DeVito, a compact ball of furious personality, has been away from the live stage for years but turns out to be one of those rare performers who own it. From the first silent moments in his drooping pyjamas, hitting the TV with elderly impatience, it is a privilege to see him owning one of our stages. To have seen DeVito’s West End debut at 67 is something to tell your grandchildren."

Michael Billington

"America's Danny DeVito and Britain's Richard Griffiths join forces in this joyous revival of Neil Simon's 1972 comedy about a pair of superannuated vaudevillians... Thea Sharrock's production treats the play as a character study rather than a mechanical gag-fest and yields two glowing performances. DeVito's Willie is an extraordinary mix of the hard-nosed old pro, who explains why words with a 'k' are funny, and the malevolent loner. For such a small man, DeVito exudes a disproportionate rage, but he makes you feel Willie's volcanic anger stems from his yearning to work. Griffiths, as his former partner, is mellower but displays a silvery determination when it comes to the precise placement of a chair and has the look of a wounded man. By the end you begin to understand why Willie says of Al, 'As an actor no-one could touch him, as a human being no-one wanted to touch him.' Adam Levy as Willie's peace-making nephew is a desperate man caught between an irresistible force and an immoveable object. The end result is a richly resonant comedy that reminds us that, while Simon may be pure, he is rarely simple."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Laurel and Hardy, the Two Ronnies, Blair and Prescott — double acts have often used contrasting size for comic effect. Now we have tiny Danny DeVito alongside big Richard Griffiths. Is Mr DeVito his co-star, or his lunch? Their pairing in Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy The Sunshine Boys is good but not exceptional. I liked it — particularly the second half — but left feeling 10 per cent underwhelmed. Mr DeVito is in a class of his own when it comes to playing self-pitying ankle‑biters... The play is imbalanced. The first half moves slowly — director Thea Sharrock needs to crack the whip over her celebrated stars — and there is some interminable stuff as the two vaudevillians rehearse one of their old routines. What audience mirth there was in the first half on Tuesday sounded forced, of the ‘we’ve paid big money to see these stars so we had better laugh’ variety...  One reason the second half is so much better is that by then, Willie has calmed down. Mr DeVito’s voice ceases its whiny shouting. It becomes almost too quiet. But he really is an asset to the show, his character a clenched fist of bragging resentment, eyes blinking in defiance, his jaw bulldogged against all comers... Some of the gags are shamelessly hackneyed, but Willie’s determination to laugh in the face of his decline acquires a nobility, and I loved the ending: a tender diminuendo, acid repartee having yielded something more human, something truer."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"This wonderful West End revival of The Sunshine Boys (1972), ... brings together Hollywood star Danny DeVito and our own beloved Richard Griffiths, who was so unforgettably funny and poignant in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys...  Just to look at this pair is enough to make you grin broadly. DeVito is short, stout, apparently bereft of a neck and prone to extraordinary arias of frustration and simmering discontent. At times he physically vibrates with fury. Griffiths, in contrast, is massively obese, almost spookily calm in his demeanour, and moves with a curious, unexpected delicacy. You get the feeling that he could eat a couple of DeVitos, sunny-side up, for breakfast and still have room for a generous portion of corned beef hash on the side. This deliciously quirky couple strike great showers of comic sparks off each other... Thea Sharrock directs a pitch-perfect production that beautifully captures fleeting moments of tenderness in the comedy without ever turning mushy. And the supporting roles are all excellently played, while rightly allowing the limelight to fall on DeVito and Griffiths. This is a golden evening that finds the West End at the top of its game.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Danny DeVito is wonderful in this revival of Neil Simon’s Seventies comedy. It’s his West End debut, and he delivers something close to a masterclass: a commanding mix of energetic humour, cute timing and simmering resentment. Thanks to him this is certainly a hot ticket... DeVito’s Willie is splendidly cantankerous, still smarting from Al’s decision to retire — and affronted by how few opportunities there are for him. It’s a performance full of zest, yet also suggestive of an intriguingly flawed humanity. Griffiths’s interpretation of the comparatively relaxed Al is strong on well-observed mannerisms but lacks emotional weight. He and DeVito are amusingly mismatched, and the relationship in many ways resembles an unhappy marriage.. The writing abounds with gags, exulting in several different kinds of crankiness, but it’s repetitive and seems like a single interesting sketch extended for two and a half hours. Thea Sharrock’s production is funny and affectionate, but needs more snap. It doesn’t help that Simon’s characters appear miserable when they’re apart and every bit as wretched when together. Amid moments of sentimentality and nostalgia, the mood is oddly glum. And although the jokes come thick and fast, a lot of them are predictable or insipid. It is only fair to say that many of those around me found the experience magical. Watching DeVito on stage is a privilege, without a doubt, but this isn’t comedy at his most deliciously fresh."

Caroline McGinn
Time Out

"The first hour of this two-and-a-half-hour comedy is so slow and unfunny that I had to pinch myself to stay awake... It's not the actors' fault.... Their material, on stage and off, is as threadbare as Clark's ancient pyjamas. But their genuine star quality scatters fitful rays of sunshine over this misguided enterprise. Though even Griffiths and Devito can't do much with the boys' 'legendary' doctor routine, a feeble and sexist skit with a buxom nurse that has no business onstage these days, and certainly not in a spoof as toothless as this one... This is a massive missed opportunity. Once you're over the hump of the first hour (and it's a mountain, not a molehill), DeVito gives a central performance of unflagging commitment and gymnastic agility, hurling his 67-year-old body around the furniture like Yoda doing a manic yoga routine. He's insufferable, childish, manic, grouchy, manipulative and vulnerable. But he earns his violins. The final scene, in which he faces moving to a retirement home for old actors in New Jersey with dignity, is genuinely poignant. It's also the only part of Thea Sharrock's sluggish production that I found funny - precisely because it digs deeper than the curmudgeonly clichés and repetitive bickering that precede it... DeVito fans will find that their pocket-sized icon gives them more than enough bang for their buck. If you're sure that daft wisecracks and tepid laughter can waft you to comic nirvana, come and ovate with them. If not, save yourself an uncomfortable nap."

Paul Taylor

"Put the diminutive Danny DeVito in anything and it's virtually impossible to avoid visual jokes about scale. This was seen at its purest in the movie that had DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the eponymous twins that had been produced by a botched genetic experiment. Thea Sharrock's limp revival of the 1972 Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys tries to get equivalent comic mileage out of the difference in size between DeVito and our own Richard Griffiths. But, though there are many real-life examples of "little and large" comedy pairings, these two actors – each excellent in their different ways – never convince you that Simon's fictional duo had spent more than 40 years as a headlining vaudeville double act. Nor, I'm afraid, does the now tired script... Admittedly, there are laugh-out-loud moments when we watch Al and Willie perform their legendary doctor sketch. But it's easier to view Griffiths and DeVito as actors who have enjoyed each other's company during few weeks of rehearsal. The script does not help matters. To hear Willie talk, you'd think that their hostility mainly derived from a matter of Al's habit of prodding him in the chest and spitting in his face on the letter 'T'. There is none of the emotional depth that would have allowed Griffiths, with his ability to suggest humane hinterland, to blossom. A disappointment."


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