Review: The Sunshine Boys – Savoy Theatre

Comebacks after acrimonious splits are becoming something of a showbiz trend. Take That and Steps just two examples of acts burying the hatchet for a return to the limelight.

Neil Simon looks at a more theatrical reunion. After 43 years of working together, legendary comedy duo Willie Clark and Al Lewis haven’t spoken for 11 years. Willie’s nephew (and agent) is determined to get the duo talking again, if only for the sake of a forthcoming TV documentary.

Simon’s 1972 play however, is beginning to creak as much as the ageing bones of the comics; the script itself contains a paper thin plot that never really tells us much about either men. We wait for a revelatory plot twist that never materialises. For such a renowned wordsmith such as Simon, more is often said in the silences and pauses than the words themselves.

Those silences, furtive glances and subtle gestures prove to be the ideal material for Danny De Vito’s West End debut. From the moment the curtain goes up on the diminutive De Vito he commands the stage, perfect put down timing, his Clark is frustratingly unlikeable but somehow you can’t help routing for him.

Richard Griffith’s performance is less successful, somewhat overshadowed by De Vito. Griffith’s seems less sure with the piece and, as such, makes for a slightly uneven sparring partner for De Vito. Perhaps it’s intentional; in the piece we see the argument very much from Clark’s viewpoint, painting Lewis as the finger prodding, spitting menace, so Griffith’s more low key approach could be seen to redress that view. It’s a view however, that is left hanging in the air. We wait for some surprise revelation that would explain the split but it never comes.

As it hits its 40th year, the play does seem to have lost pace, the middle scene in the TV studio harking back to a comedy style that, while dated at the time of writing, now seems incongruous with the rest of the piece.

Thea Sharrock’s direction gives plenty of space for De Vito and Griffiths to spar but en route loses focus slightly. Hildegard Bechtler’s beautifully detailed set provides a sumptuous backdrop but it all feels somewhat languid and in need of an injection of pace. For a play about two exponents of split-second comic timing, Simon’s script does seem to run out of energy. It also feels that the star draw of De Vito has pushed the show into too large a venue – what is for the majority of the piece a two hander is lost even in the middle of the stalls, let alone the upper levels.

Although De Vito dominates, there are fine supporting performances from Adam Levy as his put upon nephew Ben and Johnnie Fiori as the non-nonsense nurse.

There’s a growing sense of pathos in the piece, as in much of Simon’s work but this is a production with occasional bright patches rather than wall to wall Sunshine the title may imply.

Caveat: Review of a preview performance.

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