First Night: The Sunshine Boys, Savoy Theatre, London
The sun has set on this limp revival of a Seventies comedy classic
Put the diminutive Danny DeVito in anything and it's virtually impossible to avoid visual jokes about scale. This was seen at its purest in the movie that had DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the eponymous twins that had been produced by a botched genetic experiment.
Thea Sharrock's limp revival of the 1972 Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys tries to get equivalent comic mileage out of the difference in size between DeVito and our own Richard Griffiths. But, though there are many real-life examples of "little and large" comedy pairings, these two actors – each excellent in their different ways – never convince you that Simon's fictional duo had spent more than 40 years as a headlining vaudeville double act.
Nor, I'm afraid, does the now tired script. The premise is full of potential. After a professional relationship that deteriorated so badly that they did not speak offstage for the last 12 months of it, the partnership ended when Al Lewis (the Griffiths character) retired, consigning DeVito's Willie Clark to a life of auditioning for commercials and failing to be cast. With his tufts of mad-professor hair and in his frowsty, striped jim-jams, DeVito cuts an endearingly crotchety figure plodding about his scruffy New York apartment, checks Variety for the latest showbiz deaths, and kvetches at Ben, his long-suffering nephew and agent who wants the couple to reunite for a lucrative one-off CBS special.
Griffiths's Al, now living with his daughter in New Jersey, does not appear until 30 minutes in. The irony is, the best examples of zippy double-act occur when he is not on stage. The excellent Adam Levy brings pep and personality to Ben's frustration and the cross-talk has just the right buoyant snappiness.
Admittedly, there are laugh-out-loud moments when we watch Al and Willie perform their legendary doctor sketch. But it's easier to view Griffiths and DeVito as actors who have enjoyed each other's company during few weeks of rehearsal. The script does not help matters. To hear Willie talk, you'd think that their hostility mainly derived from a matter of Al's habit of prodding him in the chest and spitting in his face on the letter "T".
There is none of the emotional depth that would have allowed Griffiths, with his ability to suggest humane hinterland, to blossom. A disappointment.
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