Joan Collins dances on in unfamiliar swash-buckling mode. Resplendent in a pale-blue whalebone corset with pink suspenders, she is engaged in a somewhat myopic and perfunctory sword fight with her stage husband. It's a necessary sequence. When she flashes that well-toned flesh at you, you can almost forget that there are now people eligible to vote who were not born when Joan was the "right" age for the character she plays in this British premiere of Ken Ludwig's backstage comedy Over the Moon.
What is less easy to overlook is la Collins's lack of farce technique in a piece that requires her to react with mounting distraction to a string of disasters. With that hoity-toity, Hollywood-on-Thames accent and drag-queen flounce, her forte is amused superiority. She's more inclined to give a scene a stiff, snooty tour of inspection than to work up the wholesome sweat of collegiate involvement. And while she may be a dab hand at negotiating a limousine with six doors, she proves here that she hasn't the flexibility to command a set with the same number. Seeing her in an energetic romp is like watching a diva emerge from a respray at the beautician's only to find herself pitched into a chaotic children's party. You admire her spirit for sticking around, but feel more than a little awkward on her behalf.
In Ray Cooney's shrewdly edited and likeably silly production, Collins is teamed up with Frank Langella; they play a pair of married thesps, Charlotte and George Benson, a kind of low-rent version of the Lunts. In the new TV era of the Fifties, the pair are still touring the American theatre circuit with their tatty troupe and playing lead roles for which they are long past their sell-by date. Ludwig's play asks us to credit that, desperate to find replacement leads for his movie adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, Frank "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra is on his way to check out the matinée. It's about as believable as the idea that Baz Luhrmann will drop in on Over the Moon, talent-scouting for a remake of Much Ado. At all events, this announcement comes at a bad moment, because George, reeling from the news that he has made the ingénue pregnant, has just gone on a bender, and various cock-ups have left the company divided over whether it is Private Lives or Cyrano de Bergerac that they are performing that afternoon.
Over the Moon may be a destitute man's version of Noises Off, but it does give Frank Langella the opportunity for a deliriously funny and prolonged impersonation of a liquor-liberated luvvie. Squiffily crashing on to the wrong Private Lives balcony in his full Cyrano musketeer costume, he is a joy – proof that it takes a fine actor to cut the mustard as an old ham. There's a neat gag wherein everyone is trying to sober him up with coffee that has been accidentally laced with a bottle of Scotch. Hugging the pot with the naïve wonder of a primitive clutching a religious totem, Langella is hilarious as he tries to puzzle out why he has previously underrated this beverage.
You have to hand it to Moira Lister, too – a deadpan delight as Collins's deaf boot of a mother. No one could accuse the production of ageism, for, dolled up in a French maid's mini-dress, Lister flaunts stockinged legs every bit as shapely as Collins's. At such points, you may wonder whether you are watching a new play or a public audition for The Graduate.
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