The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Vaudeville Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:21

Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a bleak and mostly cheerless entertainment. The argument for reviving it in London – apart from the opportunity of seeing Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl in their prime and on blistering, sardonic form – must reside in the picture it paints of Manhattan on the skids and falling apart at the seams.

Forty years ago, when the play was first done, this must have seemed daring and pessimistic. Today, it strikes too many familiar chords to be surprising.

Goldblum's Mel Edison is a 47-year-old advertising executive on the way out. Ensconced in a 14th-floor apartment on the Upper East Side, his wife, Edna, combats his misery with doughty good humour and, in Ruehl's feisty, throaty performance, the sort of cock-eyed optimism and loyalty he probably doesn't deserve.

Terry Johnson's production does its best to keep the laughs coming in spite of everything, but the flipside of Simon's writing habit, his Woody Allen mode, can't sustain the dramatic energy of a play that finally resorts to unsuitably pallid metaphor.

Goldblum, very tall and giraffe-gangly, eyes standing out like bolts from his inner blues, is intermittently brilliant without quite joining up the dots between a wise-cracking schmuck and a stricken victim of the metropolitan rat race. Ruehl, on the other hand, gives a masterclass in comic acting, judging every line and gesture to perfection, and gluing it all together with incomparable technique, ideally suited to the material.

Rob Howell's design is authentically 1970s and cleverly attuned to the period of the action and the angst, but there are some really awful "scene-change" television reports of trouble on the streets that are fuzzily projected and ludicrously out of synch with the play.

To 25 September (0844 579 1975)

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