Daytona is a new work by the actor-turned-playwright Oliver Cotton and is only the third production to appear so far at the shiny new Park Theatre, which opened in May this year but is already attracting some brilliant talent to match up to the Park’s state-of-the-art facilities.
Set in New York in 1986, Joe (Harry Shearer) and Elli Zimmerman (Maureen Lipman) are married Jewish immigrants in their 70s, with a shared love of ballroom dancing. One night Joe’s brother, Billy (a gregarious John Bowe), who’s been absent since 1955, suddenly bursts back into their lives.
Elli and Joe’s relationship is comfortable but humdrum, with a fair amount of quibbling. Ellie gently scolds him with the worn-in manner of someone who’s been married for over 50 years. When she asks what he’ll wear for a dance competition, Joe responds: “The blue” and she shoots back with a disdainful tone: “Bring the others”. Lipman’s droll delivery is a masterwork in understated acting but she also knows when to let rip, whereas Shearer is a calm, pragmatic counterpart to both her and Bowe’s wild-eyed, unreliable story teller. Cotton has a gift for fusing those humorous, everyday trivialities with the fantastical – and making the most unbelievable story seem real.
Billy’s explanation of why he has suddenly re-appeared after 30 years’ absence takes up much of the first half. The big reveal is teasingly drawn out – sometimes frustratingly so – but it is punched through with a dry New Yorker wit that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Woody Allen film.
Both the men are attracted to Elli, characterised by Lipman as a soulful yet practical woman who’s had her share of pain. It’s easy to see why they’re drawn to her; Lipman’s fantastic monologue about chasing a lost love through the city is filled with the same kind of everyday beauty and ugliness as Elli’s life with Joe – there are no dramatic landscapes but there is interest and danger in the small things. “The thorns tore at my coat and the ground was covered with awful things and on the other side…was the water – the sea, the bay, the oily, freezing, black bay all scattered with ice floats and garbage.”
Her delivery is utterly mesmerising and despite the clashing orange and green décor of the apartment laid out on the stage, you feel you’re with her, shivering on a cold December night (quite a feat on a hot summer evening – even with the Park’s top-notch air conditioning).
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