The Sunshine Boys

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

A richly resonant comedy laced with pathos, featuring commanding performance from Danny De Vito.

Danny De Vito in Neil Simon's The Sunshine BoysHollywood film star Danny De Vito, making his London stage debut lights up the new production of Neil Simon’s 1972 comedy The Sunshine Boys (Savoy Theatre) with a winning blend of energetic humour, perfect timing and simmering resentment.

The story centres on Willie Clark and Al Lewis, an old vaudeville double-act who worked together for 43 years, broke up in animosity and haven’t spoken to each other for over a decade.

When CBS invites them to appear in a nostalgic television special the grouchy old stagers – known, somewhat ironically as The Sunshine Boys – are tempted to dust down a celebrated sketch for the occasion. But their mutual antipathy resurfaces as they take centre stage once more. Ageing ailments aside, can, this legendary comedy duo overcome their differences for one last turn in the limelight.

The relationship between the two men is portrayed as if it were a festering marriage but this deliciously quirky couple strike great showers of comic sparks off each other and the stream of guys – “As an actor no one could touch him, as a human being nobody wanted to touch him” says Willie about Al – only underlines the absurdist bleakness of their situation.

Then Sharrock’s product is funny and affectionate but the pace needs to be tightened. The first half of the show, set in Willie’s squalid New York hotel suite is rather slow and over-elaborate, but after the interval as the action moves to the TV studios things pick up considerably and we get a snippet of an old Lewis and Clark routine.

What makes this production such a joy to watch is Danny De Vito’s commanding performance as Willie, splendidly cantankerous, filled with outrage as he recalls the way his former comic partner used to jab him in the chest with his finger and spray spittle all over him, and still reeling from Al’s decision to retire.

Richard Griffiths, in contrast is a gentler soul, bringing an endearing reasonableness and shy fastidiousness to the role of Al Lewis, his face betraying great pain at some of Willie’s more vindictive remarks. But he does not make as big an impression as De Vito.

There is a strong sense of the amusingly mismatched men’s individual characters and the chemistry between them is certainly convincing. We can fully understand how they spent all those years as a professional pair and we get an insight into the speed, precision, surprise and skill of the vaudevillian’s art.

Praise should also be given to the strong supporting cast, of whom Adam Levy stands out as Willie’s show biz agent nephew who brokers the idea for the reunion.

This remains a richly resonant comedy, though one laced with pathos and it received a warm response from the packed auditorium on the evening attended.

The Sunshine Boys
The Savoy Theatre, London
Plays until July 28
Box office: 0844 847 7687


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