The Odd Couple, Playhouse, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

The oppressive atmosphere of the airless room; the clammy heat from the sweltering New York City summer night; the warm beer spraying in all directions - Matthew Lloyd's sparkling production of Neil Simon's 1960s Broadway comedy should carry a health warning. But the poker game that frames The Odd Couple, this tale of two men behaving badly, just wouldn't be the same without the smoke-fuelled fug seeping into the auditorium.

The oppressive atmosphere of the airless room; the clammy heat from the sweltering New York City summer night; the warm beer spraying in all directions - Matthew Lloyd's sparkling production of Neil Simon's 1960s Broadway comedy should carry a health warning. But the poker game that frames The Odd Couple, this tale of two men behaving badly, just wouldn't be the same without the smoke-fuelled fug seeping into the auditorium.

Oscar's the messy one, Felix is the compulsively tidy one and, although on stage they're the odd couple, George Costigan and David Fielder - friends of 30 years - are appearing in their 21st show together. In this nifty double act, the fragile Felix (Fielder) moves in with carefree, cash-strapped Oscar (Costigan), sliding into the role of maddeningly house-proud wife. They offer each other subtle but sterling support, setting up Simon's gags and delivering them with equal measure of bluntness and sharpness.

This is dream casting as the laid-back Costigan spars with Fielder who contrives to look like a broken doll. He contorts his body with self-induced nervous ailments while his anxieties surface and tears swim down his cheeks. Finally they're driven wild by each other's niggling ways: "I'm a neurotic nut," Felix admits, "but you're crazy." In fact they're both a couple of fruitcases, whose wives have given up on them.

Costigan brings his own brand of repulsiveness to the role of Oscar the slob. "I've got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. The green is either very new cheese or..." Since he's brought them in, unwrapped, tucked in his armpit, one hates to think what. It doesn't much bother the four affable buddies who make up the poker sextet. They're each compelling character types and we get a pretty shrewd idea of the state of their own marriages. There's not a weak link in the cast; all tapping in to the New York mentality: its exaggerated reactions, funny eccentricities and speech rhythms.

Since Liverpool is officially linked with NY, it's a minor inspiration to make the Pigeon sisters - with whom Oscar sets up a disastrous double date - two of the millions of Liverpudlians who once set sail to Ellis Island. But maybe the London broil Felix prepares should have been updated to that most popular British national dish - chicken tikka masala.

The spaciousness of Oscar's eight-roomed apartment is ingeniously suggested by Sue Plummer's clever set, above which colourful NY skyscrapers extend high into the sky. In front of this striking backdrop, the lounge is where the action happens. But although the kitchen may be off limits as far as the audience is concerned, such is its central role that it's not hard to visualise the strands of linguini pomodoro strewn from its ceiling.

To 15 January (0151-709 4776)

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