“Take care of him, make him feel important, then you’ll have a wonderful marriage – like two out of every ten couples”
The big noise around Neil Simon in London at the moment may be around the revival of The Sunshine Boys which is about to open at the Savoy, but there’s also the chance to catch another of his plays, Barefoot in the Park, as it tours around the country starring Maureen Lipman and also featuring a rare foray into the director’s chair for her.
The 1963 play is simply but effectively conceived: a couple of young newlyweds move into their not-quite-ready Manhattan apartment after a short honeymoon, but find that the glow of the honeymoon period doesn’t always last quite so long as they face the realities of living with another person. On hand to offer advice to Corrie and Paul as they navigate their way through the shifts in their relationships over a handful of scenes are Corrie’s mother Mrs Banks and their spirited upstairs neighbour, the Hungarian Victor Velasco, who start to form their own connection as the booziest of dinners leads to unexpected events.
And though there’s little by the way of drama or any real sense of tension, Lipman and co-director Peter Cregeen more than make up for it with a beautifully warm sense of humour that suffuses the whole production with a playful tenderness that is hard to resist. The gags are rarely ground-breaking but they are pitched absolutely perfectly with a subtlety often coming into play that means the humour never feels forced, even if sometimes its old-school nature means it doesn’t always feel as fresh as it could.
Faye Castelow’s screwball would-be housewife rockets around the set with a great vivacious energy, a woman coming to realise that the fulfilment of all her dreams isn’t necessarily going to be dream-like, and she pairs extremely well with Dominic Tighe’s fastidious trainee lawyer whose own challenges include figuring out the perfect work/life balance. Oliver Cotton’s oddball neighbour with his knowledge of the best Albanian restaurants in town provides many a laugh but he also tempers this with a slight human frailty, something to give a genuine emotional hook for Lipman’s mother to believably connect with.
So whilst we’re chuckling away, and for me it was Lipman’s Mrs Banks whose comedic skills were most often tickling my ribs both in her dry delivery and great physical work too, there’s a delicately persuasive story about learning how to live with people and how to accommodate them without compromising oneself. The focus is rightly on the warm humour but the balance here is very well-judged to create a night of good old-fashioned entertainment