Review: The Sunshine Boys (Epstein Theatre, Liverpool)
Show business has many notable examples of double acts where public pressure and financial necessity force the professional relationship to continue long after the private one has run its natural course. In music the Everly Brothers come to mind (not always much brotherly love there), while in the field of comedy Steptoe and Son’s Wilfred Brambell and Harry H Corbett were two very different personalities who found themselves unwilling prisoners of the show’s success (there are some hilarious tales of the backstage conflict that occurred when a stage version toured Australia).
Neil Simon apparently based The Sunshine Boys, his story of two vaudeville comics who can’t stand each other, on Gallagher and Shean, a real-life American comedy team. Simon’s duo are Lewis and Clark, ageing comedians who performed together for 43 years and now after 11 years apart are asked to reunite for a television special. The play was first staged on Broadway in 1972, but is best known for the film version that starred George Burns and Walter Matthau. Other actors who’ve performed in the lead roles over the years have included Peter Falk, Woody Allen and Jack Klugman. Just last year it was revived in London with Danny De Vito and the late Richard Griffiths (in his last stage role).
As the play’s longevity suggests, the script’s a winner and a quality production is likely to be a sure-fire hit with audiences. And so it proves in this irresistible Life In Theatre production at the Epstein Theatre, which finds the lead roles in the capable hands of two local stage veterans, Andrew Schofield and Alan Stocks. Both are superb in their very contrasting roles. Stocks, who’s on stage more or less continuously, plays cantankerous Willie Clark, living a lonely existence in a shabby apartment and rarely out of his pyjamas. Eruptions of bad temper are never far off, whereas Schofield’s immaculately dressed Al Lewis is quiet and unruffled, but a master of the deadly aside.
The play’s humour is a distinctive New York style of comedy: heavily reliant on smart wisecracks, with shades of Woody Allen and updated since Simon’s heyday by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. But if a few of the jokes now sound a bit tired, the exuberant performances compensate for this and the sheer corniness of some of the lines becomes a pleasure in itself.
The supporting cast are fine too, especially Stephen Fletcher – who also directed the production – who’s excellent as Willie’s well-meaning nephew, battling patiently to draw out the mutual affection and respect that lies beneath the surface of Lewis and Clark’s fractious relationship.
The play darkens a little as the realities of old age begin to close in, but the audience-pleasing gags keep coming and The Sunshine Boys moves towards a conclusion that’s both entertaining and emotionally involving.