BAREFOOT IN THE PARK
Malvern Theatres, Tuesday 10th April, 2012
Maureen Lipman appears in and directs this Neil Simon comedy from the early 1960s. Simon is a prolific writer often called the American Ayckbourn. I would say he is more of a diluted Woody Allen. He uses the patterns and rhythms of New York speech with a strong Yiddish influence. This kind of fast-talking, prone to hyperbole, sarcastic talk is very funny but, almost fifty years on, it has lost what edge it might have had. What we get instead is an amusing, comfortable evening at the theatre. It’s like watching an elderly pet cat being playful.
The plot concerns the first couple of weeks of married life of a young, up-and-coming lawyer and his wife. He, Paul, (a handsome Dominic Tighe) is a bit of a stuffed shirt, who expends a lot of energy ‘kvetching’ – he’s like Woody Allen played at the wrong r.p.m. I would have liked an increase in the speed of his delivery when he became more worked up, even at the expense of diction. He’s just a little too controlled all the time, even when he gets off his tits on scotch towards the end.
Faye Castelow is young wife Corrie and has something of the young Tracey Ullman about her. She is the yin to Paul’s yang but again I would have liked her a little more flighty and skittish, a little more Bohemian, to make the contrast between them all the sharper. This Corrie was a little one-note for me. At the end, when the roles are reversed and he is wigging out on the ledge outside the window of their penthouse flat, and she is taking charge of the situation, how far they have come (and I don’t mean up the five flights of stairs) could be made more apparent. He has loosened up and has actually been walking barefoot in the park, something his wife has been advocating all along. She has realised there is more to marriage than furnishing an apartment or running about with no shoes on. The curtain falls on him teetering on the high ledge with her calling to him, about to climb out and assist. Here, Simon gives us a metaphor for the precariousness of marriage. It’s a tightrope that both parties need to walk together if they are to avoid plummeting towards divorce. It’s an ending that manages to be heart-warming and downbeat at the same time.
Maureen Lipman plays Mrs Banks, Corrie’s mother. The stage lights up when she appears, to prove her talent at character-based and also physical comedy. Her exhausted entrances, having climbed the five flights (and a stoop!) to the apartment are hilarious but never over-the-top. Oliver Cotton is the dashing and exotic neighbour, Victor Velasco, and the play really comes to life when either of these two appear. Their scenes together are the highlights, deftly played, bringing the warmth and humanity of the characters to the fore. Their characters are more rounded, shaped by life experience. The younger couple have less to them, attractive and amusing though they are – they learn about themselves as the action progresses. It’s the difference between grown-ups and kids, I suppose.
It’s not so much a matter of going barefoot in the park – it’s more like revisiting a comfortable pair of slippers. But all in all, it’s an evening of gentle comedy that has aged well – unlike another revival from the same era I endured in this same venue exactly a week before!