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

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