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Review Round-up: Is Mitchell’s Mr Worth a Visit?

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Warren Mitchell (pictured) returned to the West End this week, starring in Jeff Baron’s multi award-winning 1996 two-hander Visiting Mr Green, which opened on 8 April 2008 (previews from 3 April) at Trafalgar Studios 1, where it runs for a limited season to 10 May (See 1st Night Photos, 9 Apr 2008).

In the play, Mr Green (Mitchell), a crotchety and bitter 86-year-old Jewish widower, survives his loneliness by clinging to religious rules. However, after nearly being hit by the speeding car of young corporate executive Ross Gardiner (Gideon Turner), he finds an unlikely companion as Ross begins to make weekly visits (his sentence for reckless driving).

After its 1996 US debut starring Eli Wallach, Visiting Mr Green has gone on to be translated into 22 languages and performed in 37 countries. Mitchell, now 82, has played Mr Green twice before this current UK run, which is directed by Patrick Garland and comes to the West End following an autumn tour: in a 1999 production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and in a record-breaking Australian run.

Despite the play’s global success, however, London first night critics were decidedly lukewarm in their reaction to it. In a raft of two-star reviews, critics deemed the piece “over-sentimental”, “over-schematic”, “thin-textured”, “didactic” and “mechanical”. The rapport achieved between the two players nearly compensated for the flaws in the script for most critics, who were particularly full of praise for Warren Mitchell’s “beautifully judged performance” in the title role.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – ‘Eight years after he first played the lonely old widower in Jeff Baron’s Visiting Mr Green at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Warren Mitchell revisits the role in London in a new production by Patrick Garland … I don’t much like the play, which is over-schematic and over-sentimental, but there is a growing bond between the old man and his visitor that makes room for both a meeting of minds and a revelation of tragedy. And Mitchell himself, a doddery husk of the actor whose vigour and flintiness were hallmarks of both his great Willy Loman and his tetchy King Lear, gives a master class in geriatric slyness and emotional manipulation … There are nine short scenes, and the curtain lines vary, but “Are you Jewish?”; “Who said I wasn’t?” is unlikely to grace too many anthologies, any more than the limp and slightly old-hat discussion about homosexuality will shake up the gay play repertoire ... Mitchell, shuffling along on a stick in white plimsolls, does the best alarmingly decrepit cross-stage walk I’ve ever seen, and those moments when his eyes suddenly blaze through a miasma of memory and sadness are just about worth staying awake for.’

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – ‘Having put a girdle round the Earth, Jeff Baron's 1996 American play finally gets a West End showing. But, for all its global popularity, it strikes me as a thin-textured, sentimental piece that depends heavily on the skill of its two performers … The play has so few surprises that it is a pity to disclose any of them but I find its attitude to sex extraordinary. Mr Green, as a lifelong New Yorker, behaves as if he has never before encountered a gay man. Ross, although stifled by his homophobic father, also seems implausibly terrified of coming out of the closet. You'd think the play was set in the straight Eisenhower America of the 1950s rather than in liberated modern Manhattan ... Fortunately, the actors, under Patrick Garland's sympathetic direction, lend the play extra-textual life. Warren Mitchell, himself now 82, starts out as a shrivelled, shuffling old man who greets the prospect of death with an accepting shrug … Nothing, however, in this wan evening amused me as much as the curtain call. Having basked in our applause, Mr Mitchell waved a derisive stick at us as if to say "now let me go home". After two uninventive hours, I was ready to drink to that.’

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - ‘Boy, did the New York playwright Jeff Baron get lucky with his first play. First seen in Massachusetts in 1996, and subsequently transferring to New York, where it ran for a year, Visiting Mr Green has gone on to play in 37 countries, 22 languages and more than 300 separate productions ... It must be sensational, I hear you murmuring, but actually it isn't. It's a thoroughly competent, slightly mechanical, absolutely archetypal Off-Broadway play - mildly amusing, unashamedly sentimental, a touch glib, but with its heart in the right place. It does the job, though, and it provides a socking great role for a veteran actor, and since that veteran actor is Warren Mitchell, one of the all-time greats in my view, the play proves worth catching… Visiting Mr Green is one of those "odd-couple" pieces in which two dissimilar characters are brought together, bicker entertainingly, and then discover that they have a stronger bond than they realised. Cue big hugs and a moist-eyed feelgood factor … Although the writing sometimes seems mechanical, Mitchell brings it to fresh and touching life … For those seeking subtle, deeply-felt acting in old age, Mitchell's beautifully judged performance is unmissable.’

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – ‘This is the second time this year that Patrick Garland has shown that theatrical life doesn’t end at 80. Only a few weeks ago I was admiring his production of Brief Lives, in which 83-year-old Roy Dotrice pottered about the stage as the diarist John Aubrey … Baron’s play is sufficiently well written for one to overlook, or try to overlook, its flaws. These are predictability, a basic sentimentality and, for those resistant to didacticism, the inevitable argument about whether or not people have a right to their own sexual identity. Also, a degree of improbability … Yet the two actors work so adroitly together that disbelief more or less insists on staying suspended. Turner quietly exudes integrity and strength, as well as the vulnerability of a gay man despised and humiliated by his own father. And to see Mitchell shuffling across the stage or cannily observing his visitor while firing off droll one-liners from beneath that scrubby scalp of his? That’s to be reminded of what was clear from performances as different as his malicious tramp in Pinter’s The Caretaker and his feisty title-character in Miller’s Death of a Salesman: Mitchell is one of our major actors.’

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – ‘You might think a play in which a handsome young Harvard graduate suffers sexual loneliness in gay-friendly New York, while his Jewish family shuns and mocks him, dates from old times when homosexuality was rated crime, disease and sin. You would be wrong … The play’s surprising popularity, which comes in pretty shades of bittersweet comedy, pathos and sentimentality, owes plenty to its piquant meeting of opposites. Warren Mitchell’s Mr Green, a recently widowed, octogenarian Jewish American, well-retired from his dry cleaning business, is visited by Gideon Turner’s Ross. This Harvard graduate is under court orders to make weekly visits to the old man, after almost running him down in his speeding car … Mitchell offers another beautifully nuanced, edgy performance as the self-contained, physically frail widower, who treats friendly approaches with suspicious hackles raised … The revelation that the old man is possessed by racial as well as sexual intolerance leads only to a climax of feelgood, sentimental contrivance.’

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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