The REP, Birmingham, Monday 21st October, 2013
It’s the 1980s and in their New York apartment, septuagenarians Joe and Elli rehearse for an imminent dance competition. They bicker and question each other in the manner you might expect from an old Jewish couple – every line is laced with humour, despite the mutual annoyance and sarcasm. Playwright Oliver Cotton captures the cadence and his cast deliver the lines with credible accents (only one of the three is an actual real live American). Their evening is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Joe’s long-lost brother Billy, not seen or heard of for thirty years. Billy has a tale to tell and a crime to reveal…
As curmudgeonly Joe, Harry Shearer has a strong presence and stillness, given to emotional outbursts as the situation demands (spoiler: I wouldn’t like to be his corned beef sandwich). Maureen Lipman is wife Elli, thoroughly believable as a long-suffering, mature woman, who lights up when she dances. The advent of Billy brings out past history and unresolved resentments as well as providing the couple with a present-day moral conundrum. John Bowe dominates as loud-mouthed, hard-drinking Billy, firing off monologues with great energy and spellbinding delivery. David Grindley directs the contrasts, the loud and the quiet moments, the emotion and the humour, as though conducting a trio of virtuoso performers – which, in fact, is what this cast of three is.
The play is about trying to make amends – Billy tries to atone for a wrong in the past with another wrong in the present. Joe and Elli struggle to see his point of view. The play is also about living a lie, about living without what would make you happy, about settling for second best and the sadness that can lead to.
As a piece of theatre it’s hardly innovatory. What we get is a solid, well-written, somewhat old-fashioned piece that touches and amuses us, and gives us something to think about. Performed by this excellent cast of veterans, it becomes a couple of hours that intrigues and interests and, every now and then, grips.