Theatre Royal, June 30


John Batchelor, Shane Jacobson, Todd McKenney, Laurence Coy, Jamie Oxenbould and Anthony Taufa. Photos: Pia Johnson.

More than any other Neil Simon play, The Odd Couple has passed into folklore. Given that it clocked up nearly 1,000 performances in its initial mid-’60s Broadway run, spawned a hit film (with Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon), a TV series in the 1970s, and has enjoyed endless revivals around the world, you’d pretty much have to have had your head in a bucket to have missed it.

But, in case there are some bucket-lovers among us, Oscar (Shane Jacobsen) is a New York sports writer whose marriage has failed, and who lives a slovenly existence in eight-room apartment, where he hosts a Friday night poker game. His best friend, Felix (Todd McKenney), is a TV new swriter, whose own marriage implodes around the time the curtain goes up. Oscar tries to comfort the distraught Felix by telling him, “There’s a hundred thousand divorces a year. There must be something nice about it.”

With Felix homeless, Oscar invites him to stay. One giant blunder for friendship, one great a boon for comedy. Oscar, you see, likes being a slob, whereas Felix is so fixated on cleanliness that he’ll track a burning cigarette with an ashtray and a descending drink with a coaster. Basically, you can see way their wives left both of them, and why their flirtation with cohabitation is doomed.

Lucy Durack and Penny McNamee. Photos: Pia Johnson.

Director Mark Kilmurry’s production reminds us that Simon wasn’t just good at making us laugh; he was good at implying the heartache behind the laughter. His characters are so finely observed that, even though we giggle at their idiocy, they’re never without warmth, and when the playwright dares to flick the switch to the pathetic sadness of the human condition just for the barest moment, we find that we like these people we’re laughing at enough to feel for them.

Like music, playing comedy is all about rhythm, and Kilmurry has his eight actors nailing every syncopation with such precision it’s as though there’s an invisible conductor in the pit. And when the text hits a dry patch or the jokes show their age, the cast effortlessly picks up the slack. Just one pause was milked too long for its payoff.

Jacobsen catches all Oscar’s gag-lines like he’s wearing a giant baseball mitt, and meanwhile ensures we love him, despite the epic boorishness. Initially McKenney seemed less at ease in Felix’s skin, and more inclined to ham to obtain the laughs, but that soon evolved, until they became dream-team casting.

Todd McKenney and Shane Jacobson. Photos: Pia Johnson.

A particular joy of this production is the care that’s been taken over the six minor roles. Consequently these people build a complete world for Oscar and Felix to inhabit, rather just existing in a vacuum of absent wives and children. Penny McNamee is hilarious as Gwendolen Pigeon, and Lucy Durack’s not far behind as her sister Cecily. Kilmurry has these two excitable English neighbours speaking in similar squeaky voices, and duetting in perfect timing and harmony in their amused or embarrassed vocal reactions. So just when we’ve become overused to Oscar and Felix’s grumpy bickering, the women completely turbocharge the comedy once more.

The opening scene, before we’ve even met Felix, is comparably funny, as Laurence Coy (Speed) Anthony Taufa (Murray), John Batchelor (Roy) and especially Jamie Oxenbould (Vinnie) sharply define the crazy characters in the weekly poker game. Then there are the classy design elements and the jazz delineating the scene transitions all icing a classic production of a comedy that ain’t going anywhere just yet.

Until July 28.