Every year at the Edinburgh Fringe, various well-known stand-ups appear in a play. Presumably, they intend to show they're talented thesps and the box office does a roaring trade. This time round in The Odd Couple, Neil Simon's vintage comedy about two flat-sharing divorcees who behave like a quarrelsome married couple, we have Alan Davies as Felix (Jack Lemmon's part in the movie) and Bill Bailey as Oscar (the Walter Matthau role).
On the day I caught Guy Masterson's production, Davies had forgotten that 175,000-odd people would be watching something else, the traffic-halting Festival Cavalcade, so he was still struggling to cross town as his audience were taking their seats. Alas, this pre-show suspense was his most dramatic contribution. The show's calibre slumped woefully the moment his Felix arrived - albeit on cue, near the end of Act One - to find Oscar with his poker-playing buddies.
Though Davies was a charming stand-up in the 1990s, he's a lousy actor. This hardly needed confirming after Jonathan Creek, though TV helped conceal the awkwardness and low charisma instantly exposed here on stage. It's like watching a hopelessly self-conscious teenager in a school play. He has no sense of pacing dialogue, permanently looks as if he's about to corpse, and visibly hopes to be cute which is very unendearing. The casting is wrong in any case: a shaggy, shambling kinda guy portraying the neurotically tidy Felix? Davies is only briefly funny when he camps it up as the self-appointed housewife, prissily flicking a tea towel and insisting his mates place their beers on stain-stopping coasters.
Oscar's high-rise apartment has enjoyable 1960's features but also its am-dram moments. The cloth walls wobble and there are no actual windows for Felix to open when he is meant to be attempting to leap to his death. That he is merely histrionic surely shouldn't be that obvious. Masterson's scene changes are needlessly interminable too, using a tiny, hand-held vacuum to clean up the blokes' strewn debris, rendering me almost as infuriated as Oscar. Just use the big Hoover, can't you! It's going to feature in Act III anyway.
Still, count your blessings. Simon's repartee remains indestructibly amusing and this Odd Couple's extremely uneven casting means, on the upside, that Bill Bailey is a delight. He's a terrifically natural and entertaining Oscar, slobbing around like a rumpled troll, then pursuing the ladies with perky vigour. And he maintains a far better US accent than Davies. Lizzie Roper and Katherine Jakeways contribute nicely judged caricatures as the giggling British babes, named Cecily and Gwendolyn with a nod to Oscar Wilde. Round the poker table, the Irish comics Ian Coppinger and Owen O'Neill are slightly out of their depth even in small supporting roles, but Dave Johns is affably energised as the cop, Murray, and Phil Nichol contributes an amusing cameo, bug-eyed in the style of Peter Lorre, playing the highly-strung geek, Speed. All in all, this is watchable but not worth the candle unless you just want some familiar comic fare.
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