First Night: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre, London - Reviews - Theatre & Dance - The Independent

First Night: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre, London

3.00

Masterclass of comic acting fails to sustain the dramatic energy

Every clown feels pain and sheds tears. But even allowing for the dark side of the loon in Neil Simon, Broadway's premier gag-meister and comedy merchant these past 50 years, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a bleak and mostly cheerless entertainment.

The argument for reviving it in London – apart from the opportunity of seeing two of America's finest actors, Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl, in their prime and on blistering, sardonic form – must reside in the picture it paints of Manhattan on the skids.

Forty years ago, when the play was first done (there was a later film starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft), this must have seemed daring and pessimistic. Today, it strikes too many familiar chords to be surprising. And the stagecraft is curiously old-fashioned.

Goldblum's Mel Edison is a 47-year-old advertising executive on the way out. His condition is existentially reflected in the heat and noise of the city, the endless partying of the German air-hostesses next door and the grim censure of the upstairs neighbours who empty buckets of water over him whenever he goes out on the balcony to lodge a protest.

Mel and Edna are miserably ensconced in a 14th-floor apartment on the Upper East Side; "Why do we pay hundreds of dollars to live in an egg-box that leaks?" asks Mel, not unreasonably, feeding his paranoia with a view that his redundancy is less a result of the economic downturn than of a conspiracy among the neighbours and the hell of modern city life.

Edna combats his misery with doughty good humour and, in Mercedes Ruehl's feisty, throaty performance, the sort of cock-eyed optimism and loyalty he probably doesn't deserve. Unfortunately, she leaves the door open and they get burgled.

Terry Johnson's production does its best to keep the laughs coming in spite of everything, but the flipside of Simon's writing habit, his Woody Allen mode, can't sustain the dramatic energy of a play that finally resorts to unsuitably pallid metaphor, with Goldblum and Ruehl taking up a shovel and posing like the grim subjects of Grant Wood's American Gothic painting while snow falls through their skylight.

By this time, in the second act, the couple have been visited by Mel's three Jewish sisters – slyly portrayed by Amanda Boxer, Patti Love and the surprisingly svelte Fiona Gillies – and his pushy businessman brother (played like a bulldog by Linal Haft). Cracks are showing in the family gathering, but you feel it's the start of another play Simon suddenly realises he wants to write but doesn't have time for.

Goldblum, very tall and giraffe-gangly, eyes standing out like bolts from his inner blues, is intermittently brilliant without quite joining up the dots between a wise-cracking schmuck and a stricken victim of the metropolitan rat race. Ruehl, on the other hand, gives a master class in comic acting, judging every line and gesture to perfection, and gluing it all together with incomparable technique, ideally suited to the material.

Rob Howell's design is authentically 1970s and cleverly attuned to the period of the action and the angst, but there are some really awful linking television reports of trouble on the streets and strikes among the judges that are fuzzily projected and ludicrously out of synch with the play. Better to have ditched them and played the best of the Loving Spoonful as an ironic commentary in the scene changes.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
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.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories