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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Sunshine Boys
Savoy Theatre   Summer 2012

A Neil Simon comedy with an American TV star and a British national treasure you really can't get much more critic-proof a tourist-grabber and audience-pleaser than that. 

And the fact that it could and should be a lot better than it is won't keep most people from being perfectly happy with it. 

I once wrote an article (still available on plagiarise-your-term-paper sites) called 'Neil Simon And His Amazing Laugh Machine', arguing that Simon's comedies work because he is at core a gag writer. Ordinary dialogue in his plays is built on the classic joke structure of set up, straight line and punchline Did you see that Joe Blow died? - Where? - In the newspaper. 

Writing a play about comedians gives Simon a perfect excuse for such exchanges, and you can set your stopwatch for the jokes that will come along every third line or so. 

The Sunshine Boys are two retired vaudeville stars who haven't spoken in years after a lifetime of accumulated grudges but are reunited for a TV special. This gives us a chance to see their act Simon's loving pastiche of vaudeville shtick and to hope against hope that they'll be reconciled. 

Danny DeVito plays the hotheaded one, feeding his resentment with memories of his partner's annoying quirks. DeVito can do hotheaded in his sleep he doesn't do slow burns, but repeated explosions and at times in this production he seems to be doing just that.

Whether it's Thea Sharrock's direction, DeVito's trouble remembering lines or just a lack of energy, DeVito constantly meanders through dialogue that should snap and crackle. 

The jokes are still there, but we have to wait for them, and you sometimes catch his fellow actors being thrown off their rhythm by his mistiming. 

I think director Sharrock shares the blame for this, because the vaudeville act scene, which is just one ancient and irresistible gag after another, desperately wants more energy and tighter pacing than she's given it. 

And that's what I mean by saying the show should be better than it is. The gags are all there, and enough come through to satisfy. But if they all came through, and with the relentless pacing Simon deserves and requires, there would be can't-catch-your-breath continuous laughter, not the occasional chuckle. 

The comic set-up virtually requires DeVito's co-star to be the calm one, and that old smoothie Richard Griffiths floats through his role with consummate authority. Griffiths is always a delight to watch, because he makes it seem so easy, and you can only wish he had something more reliable to bounce off. 

Partly because all his scenes are with DeVito, Adam Levy struggles with the thankless role of nephew and agent, and Johnnie Fiori has a brief scene of sassiness as a nurse. 

B-level Neil Simon is funnier than most other writers' A-level work, and a B-level production of a Neil Simon play is funnier than an evening's TV sitcoms. But only just.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Sunshine Boys - Savoy 2012   

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