Sunday July 21, 2024
THE ODD COUPLE
Review

THE ODD COUPLE

By Diana Simmonds
July 2 2024

THE ODD COUPLE, Theatre Royal, 30 June-28 July 2024. Photography by Pia Johnson

In the beginning, there was night and day, later: chalk and cheese, thick and thin, oil and water, war and peace, heaven and hell. Then on the seventh day – actually 1965 – God (of Broadway – aka – Neil Simon) created Oscar and Felix: The Odd Couple.

The comedy duo – unrepentant slob and nagging pernicketypants – lives again in Shane Jacobson as Oscar, and Todd McKenney as Felix. They’re good buddies (actors and characters alike) and meet at Oscar’s apartment with other pals for Friday poker night.

The curtain rises on worried men: Felix hasn’t turned up, his chair is empty. Around the table are Vinnie (a brilliant Jamie Oxenbould, whose every utterance is lugubrious and every nerve constantly a-twitch); Murray, the savvy neighbourhood cop (in-every-moment Anthony Taufa); while John Batchelor (Roy) and Laurence Coy (Speed) make the most of less well-defined roles.

It turns out that Felix’s long-suffering wife has finally kicked him out and he’s gone off into the night to do himself in. Except this is a sit-com and Billy Roache’s excellent costumes tell us it’s the mid-60s, so sensitivity and trigger warnings are yet to be invented. Thus, when Felix does arrive there’s a rush to shut a window (they’re eleven floors up) and much convoluted wordplay as the emotionally incompetent men try their best to deal with their shellshocked buddy. And, as Simon was unburdened by the need to avoid giving offence, he hands out lashings of it – to the chortling delight of the audience.

THE ODD COUPLE

Being a good pal, Oscar invites Felix to stay a few days, then to move in as “roommate”. After all, he’s divorced and his wife and kids have decamped to California. The eight-room apartment is lonely. All too soon Felix is transforming Oscar’s noxious muck tip into the impeccable home it obviously once was. The curtain goes up, and stays, on a spacious living-dining room with high ceilings, nice window drapes, shelves of knick-knacks, family photos, plus door to kitchen and access to bathroom, bedrooms, and the lobby – clever, economical design from Justin Nardella, with equally well-judged lighting by Trudy Dalgleish.

Oscar and Felix’s slide into domesticity is disrupted in Act Two (a properly made play – no filmic fragments here) when Oscar chats up and invites for dinner two ex-pat English sisters from upstairs. The arrival of Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon gives the show its silliest, and raucously funniest characters as Lucy Durack and Penny McNamee let rip with tones so brittle and Knightsbridge they almost peel the paper from the walls. They don’t so much steal as commit a mega-heist on their all-too-brief appearance. Uncommon comedy gold – they don’t write them like that anymore.

What’s also tickling about the sisters is their Wildean names. Not only do they share them with the two gels from The Importance of Being Earnest, but also there’s “Oscar” and Felix – a sly reference by the playwright to a colleague and supporter of Wilde’s, the anarchist Félix Fénéon? Answers on a postcard, please.

Meanwhile, The Odd Couple does show its age from time to time. And there will be some grabbing up of offended petticoats and running for the hills, although probably not from its intended audience. Nevertheless, it’s much more rewarding to view the play as a brilliant comedic construct and slice of social history. This is made easier by Mark Kilmurry’s deft direction. He treats the play with the seriousness demanded by comedy, and the result is almost continuous waves of laughter. Most notably in what could be called The Tragic Copious Weeping Scene.

THE ODD COUPLE

(Kilmurry is artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre and he directed the play there in 2019 with Steve Rodgers and Brian Meegan. It would be fascinating to have him stage Simon’s 1985 gender swap version. It starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, and instead of poker, the gang of girlfriends played Trivial Pursuit. These days it would probably be Texas Hold ’Em.)

Meanwhile, The Odd Couple is an entertaining 2.5 hours including interval. The cast is uniformly hilarious or serious, as demanded, and if the Theatre Royal were not so set on gouging patrons with eye-watering drink and ice-cream prices, and opened side exit doors to allow us to leave in under 15 minutes, it would enhance a great night out.

 

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