by Neil Simon.

Palace Theatre To 27 February 2010.

Tue-Sat 7.45pm Mat 17, 20, 25, 27 February 2.30pm.
Audio-described 20 Feb 2.30pm.
Captioned 23 Feb.
Post-show Discussion 11, 24 Feb.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.

TICKETS: 01923 225671.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 9 February.

Laughs and tension – all in the family.
His ‘BB’ trilogy, of which this is the first part, sees American theatre’s prime laughter merchant Neil Simon taking a more serious look back at his early life. Here, he’s 14 in a New York Jewish home during 1937 (Biloxi Blues takes alter ego Eugene Jerome into the army; Broadway Bound sets him on the road to fame.

Here, writing nestles alongside baseball ambitions (Eugene’s first seen throwing a ball against the side of his house) and inevitable sexual awakenings. Big brother Stanley provides know-how and cousin Nora an object of temporary desire. Both, like the adults, have their own anxieties. Only disabled cousin Laurie seems free from crises.

Memoirs mixes laughs with the woes up to the interval. Afterwards, things darken, the family threatening to split as rows emerge. But blood proves thicker than anger. Simon’s not the playwright to take audiences into his characters’ interiors, but he has them express their hidden troubles and fears. And finally he celebrates the family as a benevolent institution that gives shape to its individual members’ lives.

All this comes across in Jennie Darnell’s Watford revival through terrific performances. She controls the mood precisely, maximising Simon’s humour – no-one can better shape a comic line, or play off serious and inconsequential aspects of a situation – and gives dignity to the characters’ serious aspects.

With gangling arms, a teenager’s ability to find the most uncomfortable way to keep his memoirs (the point’s silently made, that what a writer basically does, is write), Ryan Sampson has an energy, keenness and directness fitting Eugene’s age, while Ronan Raftery’s Stanley, three years older, displays a worldly surface while being bitten keenly by guilt and principle.

Amy McAllister and Sonya Cassidy are tactfully efficient as the young sisters, while a generation up Cate Hamer and Tessa Churchard create a detailed sense of a sisterly bond tested by friction and Stephen Boxer provides the intelligent but overworked father with an apt weariness and strong moral base.

Deprived of an upper storey, Jonathan Fensom’s set is awkward and cluttered. But it’s the performances that make this revival worth the visit.

Eugene Jerome: Ryan Sampson.
Blanche Morton: Cate Hamer.
Kate Jerome: Tessa Churchard.
Laurie Morton: Amy McAllister.
Nora Morton: Sonya Cassidy.
Stanley Jerome: Ronan Raftery.
Jack Jerome: Stephen Boxer.

Director: Jennie Darnell.
Designer: Jonathan Fensom.
Lighting: Jason Taylor.
Vocal coach: Charmian Hoare.

2010-02-10 09:45:07

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