Laughter on the 23rd Floor: Queen's Theatre

Theatre

Critics are not famous for eating their words, but characters in American plays seem to be doing it all the time these days. In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George claims to have eaten the telegram announcing the death of his son. In Neil Simon's latest comedy, a writer literally chews up a gag in a hilarious fit of pique rather than let the star use it.

With Simon's hugely successful career resting fairly and squarely on gags, the setting of the writers' room on a top comedy show is the perfect setting for a play. His weakness as a dramatist has always been his inability to resist a neat wisecrack, turning characters into cocktail-shakers: smart, brittle and stocked with stingers. This time, though, it all makes sense. These people are paid to be funny. All he has to do is wind 'em up and let 'em go. Of course, the guy needs a plot, but given that, 40 years ago, the man himself was one of the writers on the legendary Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, it comes ready-made, as autobiography.

Lucas, Simon's alter ego, is the raw recruit in a boisterous gang of joke-meisters on the 1950s ratings-topping satirical show which faces cuts and cowardly censorship. With his skewed, whacked-out, languid physicality, Gene Wilder couldn't look less like bluff, bullish Sid Caesar if he tried, but no matter. The play conjures up the era, rather than slavishly re- creating people that only elderly American tourists will remember. Wilder has the true comedian's gift of being able to stretch time, the audience hanging on his ability to pack a silence with lunatic intent, or to orchestrate a speech with a wonderfully ridiculous repertoire of anticipatory moans and squeaks of stupefaction. The problem is that the character is shown to be in decline: Wilder consequently adopts a slow rhythm. To pull that off, the ensemble playing needs to whistle along like an express train. Here, though, Roger Haines's cast don't quite mesh.

Among the assembled bunch of egos - based on the likes of Mel Brooks and Larry (M*A*S*H) Gelbart - the problem, as ever, is accent. You don't need to look at your programme to realise who the Americans are. The fact that Rolf Saxon looks like Phil Silvers helps, but it's not just that. Compare his timing, his ease and his genuinely American physicality with the more effortful performances of the Brits and you see what's wrong. The exceptions to this rule are Stefan Bednarczyk, switching gleefully from concern to malevolence, and Regina Freedman, who hits paydirt as the bespectacled secretary.

Thankfully, Simon holds off from unearned sentimentality until the last minute. Ultimately, this show about a hit may well become one itself. It doesn't exactly make you fall out of your seat laughing, but it has more successful gags than you have any right to expect n

Booking: 0171-494 5590

David Benedict

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering