by Neil Simon.

Watford Palace 20 Clarendon Road WD17 1JZ To 6 October 2012.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed, Thu, Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 25min One interval.

TICKETS: 01923 225671.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 25 September.

Finely-crafted play and production with a devastating performance
Like Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon fist built a reputation for comedy, though in later plays, like this from 1991, laughter often offsets serious material. 15½ year-old Jay, the older of two brothers left with a stern grandmother among the Yonkers Jewish community while their mild-mannered father sets out to pay off his debts and help the war-effort, is the age Simon was in 1942, when the action begins.

Grandma Kurnitz rules with a rod of iron in the respectable if slightly shabby home above her store. Bernice Stegers is believable as a matriarch who wilfully tramples on less forceful family members, including the boys’ mild-mannered father Eddie, played with brow-mopping, trouser-rubbing nerves by Jonathan Tafler. Brother Louie learned to stand up to her and has made his way in the world. In the underworld too, it seems, as Jay turns on him in Eddie’s defence. It’s Nitzan Sharron’s achievement here to take his character from comic small-time hood to someone aware he’s surviving on aggression and bluff.

Neither Jos Slovick nor Keith Ramsay look their characters’ ages, but they give strongly characterised performances, Slovick’s Jay the leader, trying to stay polite under provocation, Ramsay looking to his older brother for a lead, often silent or taking time to work out what adults are saying. Yet it takes just one bowl of soup to establish his inner toughness, while showing Grandma can know best.

Polly Conway works hard at the brief role of Gert, who also indicates Grandma’s long-term psychosomatic impact on her brood. But it’s Laura Howard, as the stay-at-home Bella, without the natural mental resources to live independently, who shows Simon’s ability to create serious characters through humour.

Certainly in Laura Howard’s portrayal of innocence, laughing-off difficulties, smilingly adjusting what she says when mistakes are pointed out, simplistically, yet sympathetically planning a future that will never happen. And when Simon gives her a scene of mental illumination to express her feelings, it’s written and acted, in Derek Bond’s beautifully precise production, with searing precision and conviction. Anyone who has seen Howard’s performance will remember it a very long time.

Jay: Jos Slovick.
Arty: Keith Ramsay.
Eddie: Jonathan Tafler.
Bella: Laura Howard.
Grandma Kurnitz: Bernice Stegers.
Louie: Nitzan Sharron.
Gert: Polly Conway.

Director: Derek Bond.
Designer: James Perkins.
Lighting: Sally Ferguson.
Sound: Richmond Rudd.
Vocal coach: Simon Money.

2012-10-03 01:50:36

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