The last time I went to the Savoy Theatre, it was to see Judy Garland’s lesser-know daughter Lorna Luft sing songs ‘my mother taught me‘. Don’t ask! This time I arrived firm in the belief that laughter from the audience would be welcomed rather than muffled!
In his West End debut, Danny DeVito proves his comedy credentials as Willie Clark, one half of a golden comedy duo of yester-year. We learn that after enduring a Vaudeville career spanning 43 years together, the legendary ‘Clark and Lewis’ stopped speaking to eachother and Lewis opted to retire. With no contact for over a decade Willie Clark has become a bitter ‘past-it’ actor living by himself in a cluttered apartment and visited once a week by his agent Nephew, Ben (Adam Levy). Desperate to perform, but incapable of even getting booked for an Alkaseltzer commercial, the cantankerous Willie’s only enjoyment comes from scouring Variety to see which of his actor ‘friends’ are now deceased.
From his first moments on stage, DeVito proves himself the best of the best. That unbeatable combination he’s built a career on – perfect comic timing and side-splitting physical comedy – translates perfectly to the stage. With the ease of the seasoned pro he is, he can make even a one-sided phone call an occasion for loud guffaws. Most impressive though is his ability to reconcile the easy laughs with a depiction of his character’s true flaws. Early on, we get the sense we need of Willie’s ever-simmering resentment and how hard he makes it for others to be around him.
And, this is where we meet Ben; Clark’s long-suffering nephew and agent. He provides the perfect ear for Willie’s miserable gripings. Ben complains his weekly visit causes him to ‘only get chest pains on a Wednesday‘, Willie fires back, ‘So come on a Tuesday‘. This is a protagonist who needs the last laugh. Ben, eager to rediscover his uncle’s glory days naively cajoles to organise one last performance of ‘Clark and Lewis’ for an upcoming television retrospective on Vaudeville comedy, so providing the occasion for Lewis’s return.
DeVito carries the show by himself for the first half hour. The legend that is Richard Griffiths then appears in what can’t help but feel like something of an anti-climax. We hear early on from Willie that when it comes to Lewis ‘as an actor you couldn’t touch him, as a human no-one wanted to touch him‘. And yet, he doesn’t bring the ‘oomph’ and feeling to match DeVito’s grumbling. There is no doubt that Griffiths is a veteran star of stage and screen, but he is just not at his most convincing in this role.With DeVito having won over the audience as a hate-filled bubble of comic dynamism, we’re left struggling to believe that Griffiths could ever really have been the worthy mate to Willie’s comedy prowess. Aside from the inevitable rib-tickling that looking at the two together induces (think Schwarzenegger and DeVito in ‘Twins’), there is no real chemistry between them. Whilst the audience loved to hate Willie’s crotchety resentment, we felt somewhat apathetic to Griffiths being on the stage. Used to seeing him steal the limelight as learned and emotional titans like Hector in ‘History Boys’ or Dysart in ‘Equus’, here he lacks the charisma (and American accent) needed to convince. DeVito shows the childish regression and decline that can come with old age, but Griffiths is more ‘old man’ than ‘faded star’.
That’s not to say they don’t make you ache with laughter. The performance of their famous ‘Doctor Sketch’ is a real treat, but again that is mostly to do with DeVito’s shameful ogling of a busty nurse and quick quips.
Thea Sharrock’s production of Neil Simon’s script is all-the-better for allowing DeVito to offer a masterclass in character development rather than a soul-less gag production-line. The inherent comedy of the pocket-sized pro with oversized anger issues is not all we see. The true joy comes from DeVito’s relentless grievances; the skill is in getting the audience to see beyond the mad-professor tufts of hair and perpetual pyjama wearing. We’re left that with all the indignities and maladies of old age, maybe laughter really is the best medicine.
(Pictures: Johan Persson for The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre)