A bit sketchy
I hate to begin with a weather metaphor (again) but truly in this gloomy British rain there is surely NOTHING more likely to slap a smile on your face than The Sunshine Boys at The Savoy Theatre. Not only is it an absolute gem of a play, written by the award-winning Neil Simon, it’s starring two of the greatest actors still spoiling us with their incredible amounts of talent, Richard Griffiths and Danny Devito.
The Sunshine Boys is the story of lost love. Willie Clarke (Devito) and Al Lewis (Griffiths) were a Vaudeville comedy duo. They played to thousands and were known and respected throughout the comedy world. They were not only the best at what they did, they were remembered. It’s now the seventies and the pair, much older and definitely not wiser, is in for a rude awakening.
Sitting in the gigantic Savoy Theatre with a packed-out auditorium, I could feel the excitement. A velvety red curtain rises and we see the pint-sized Devito engulfed in an armchair watching and old ‘TV set’. The moment the audience see this beloved man with his tufts of white hair and over-sized glasses, spontaneous applause ensues, and it’s wonderful.
After a moment or two of grinning at Devito while he hilariously messes around with the television, you gradually notice the set – a cacophony of photographs, bric-a-brac, newspapers, mismatching furniture, laundry and years worth of memories. Hats off to Hildeguard Bechtler, the designer, for making us feel as if we were in Willie Clarke’s home, which we later find out to be a hotel room that he’s lived in for thirty years.
Willie continues plugging and unplugging the television, answering the phone when the kettle boils and other fantastically funny senile activities, until there’s a knock at the door. ‘Knock knock knock’ are the three words that will drive you crazy with laughter throughout this play.
‘Uncle Willie, it’s me!’ Clarke’s nephew, played gorgeously by Adam Levy, has arrived and what seems like a regular battle proceeds. Willie insists he’s locked in while Ben Silverman, the nephew, insists that he needs to SLIDE the lock open, not pull it. Something we think has been explained a million times. When the door is finally opened, we meet our saint. Ben visits Willie at leastonce a week, bringing him his newspapers, food and the heavily demanded cigars. He works as an agent and represents his uncle, trying his best to get him drips and drabs of work. The work he does get him is futile because even if Willie manages to remember the address, he forgets the lines anyway.
However, today is a special visit. Along with a bag of treats Ben brings some news from a big television channel. They are doing a show about the history of comedy and the acts that changed the face of it. They want Willie to do one of the old acts. Unfortunately for Ben, Willies old acts included a partner, and you can’t have one without the other. That’s right, they want Willie AND Al.
Willie’s initial reaction to the reunion of Lewis and Clarke is ‘NO’. No way. He reveals that the pair hasn’t spoken in twelve years and for the two of them to even be in the same room, let alone perform together again, would be disastrous. The way he reacts is the first of many extremely funny hissy fits. I’m not sure if it’s because of his height, his grouchy voice or just sheer talent, but seeing the shouting, the jumping and the hysterical story telling had the entire auditorium in stitches.
After countless words of persuasion, Willie is finally convinced to meet Al and rehearse (but only in his hotel room and only if AL promises not to poke or spray spit in his face). The day finally dawns and Willie couldn’t be more nervous. You get the feeling similar to that of a broken marriage, two people that were once so close, yet now act like complete strangers, forced to meet under certain circumstance.
“Knock Knock Knock”
Ben, who’s there to buffer, answers the door… while Willie hides in the kitchen.
Enter the great Al Lewis, our prestigious Richard Griffiths. Nephew Ben shows the retired performer in; awkwardly making conversation until he realizes that his uncle is doing all he can to avoid crossing the threshold of the kitchen. Once Ben recognizes that he’s done his best, he leaves, and for the first time since the curtain went up, silence ensues.
Polite words of tea and travels follow until Willie finally braves the living room. The tiny Devito against the great Griffiths is visually outstanding. The two of them together is magnificently funny, even without Simon’s brilliant script.
As the rehearsal begins, so do the arguments. They start moving furniture into position for what they call ‘The Doctor Sketch’ which becomes a slapstick sketch in itself. As one man moves a chair, the other swiftly moves it back and it becomes a back and forth that never ends. Evidentially, it does end as Willie asks Al what does he think they’re setting up for? The Doctor Sketch? In which Al replies, ‘Oh, the Doctor sketch’.
As the play continues, so does the comedy. From actually managing to get the two on set at the studio to more finger prodding and hissy fits. We get our heartstrings pulled and our sides split and none of it is disappointing.
The inspiration for this Neil Simon hit came from one of his previous works ‘The Odd Couple’ in which two men fight and squabble like a married couple. Taking this idea further, he introduced a male relationship reflecting that of a bitter divorce. The two men portray this relationship beautifully, with moments of forgotten love for one another, which is quickly resolved with remembered abhorrence for bad habits and stubborn ways.
Richard Griffiths is a superb Al Lewis, adorable in his forgetful ways and incredible in his grumpy command on the stage. A touch of softness in comparison to Willie, you can see that he wouldn’t so much mind the two becoming friends again.
Danny Devito carries this play, he doesn’t miss a beat, and his entire performance is flawless, lovable and outrageously funny. It was so inspiring to see such a legend still on top of his game, still stealing the show.
Adam Levy gives a wonderful Ben Silverman. He is caring, sweet-natured and very, very stressed! Constantly running around after Willie, trying to do his job and not kill his uncle, he is often at his wits’ end.
The double act are supported by a small but strong cast. We have our pretend nurse for the Doctor Sketch, the very beautiful and busty Rebecca Blackstone whose flirtatious smile and naïve bending gives the sketch the classic Vaudeville element.
Our real nurse, who takes care of Willie, is the blunt and boisterous Johnni Fiori, not taking any of Willie’s back talk, actually managing to get the cheeky old man to listen for a change.
The assistant on the television set, Eddie, is played by Nicholas Blakeley and is a very stressed and nervous boy, unable to control our duo’s fighting, afraid of the big booming voice of the director, Peter Cadden.
This play was magnificent. The couple that once owned New York, now in the last chapter of their lives, not even trying to re-live the old days, but stubbornly clinging on to the ones they have left. Shall this couple put aside their differences and live happily ever after? You’ll just have to go and see, won’t you.
The Sunshine Boys Review by Rebecca Birch (Twitter @BirchR)
Savoy Court, The Strand
Content updated 1st May 2014