Friday, 11 November 2016

The Odd Couple, MTC, Nov 10, 2016 ***

By Neil Simon, Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until Dec 17, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Thurs Nov 10, 2016
Stars: *** 
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri Nov 11, 2016
Francis Greenslade, Shaun Micallef, Michala Banas, Christie Whelan Brown - photo Jeff Busby

Neil Simon is a genius of comic stage and screen writing and his biting one-liners in The Odd Couple are still as funny and whip-smart as they were when he wrote the play in 1965.

If you don’t know the story, it’s about Oscar Madison (Francis Greenslade), a divorced, grouchy and slovenly sports writer who invites his old pal, Felix Ungar (Shaun Micallef), a finicky, hypochondriacal news writer, to stay with him in Oscar’s New York apartment after Felix’s wife tosses him out of home. Chaos ensues.

You may remember the mismatched pair from the Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon 1968 movie written by Simon, or recognise similar, incompatible types from TV show, Frasier, when fussy Frasier Crane’s scruffy dad comes to stay.

Peter Houghton’s production best captures Simon’s rapid-fire banter in Oscar’s blokey poker games that open Acts One and Two with Oscar’s smart-mouthed, New York pals taunting and teasing each other in a battle of wits that echoes Simon’s writing – and that of others comic geniuses such as Mel Brooks  – for the Sid Caesar TV show.

Greenslade finds the comedy in the unkempt Oscar’s grouchy personality and sloppy domestic habits, driving Oscar to the edge of distraction by the final scenes.

Micallef’s eccentric charm and comic spirit make Felix engaging and funny, and he is most successful when he allows his own physical idiosyncrasies and comic sensibilities to colour Felix’s peculiar behaviour.

Micallef and Greenslade get plenty of laughs, particularly during the slapstick scene chasing in and out of doors, during Felix’s manic cleaning, cooking and ear-clearing, and his prissy criticism of Oscar’s habits.

However, Micallef misses some of the detail and extremity of Felix’s dapperness and obsessive-compulsive behaviour (e.g. he rolls suit pants when Felix would fold them along the crease) and he never appears, as Oscar describes Felix, to be so uptight that he has ‘clenched hair’.

The pair also lacks the searing comic timing and delivery that should send Simon’s play into the comedy stratosphere.

There was a scary moment when Micallef’s Felix, driven to distraction, smashes a cup that lands on a man in the front row. Check the insurance or change the throw, boys!

The talented supporting cast provides a parade of quirky, hilarious characters, with some of the funniest scenes involving Michala Banas and Christie Whelan Browne as the twittering and twitty Pigeon sisters, two English gals who tantalise Oscar and mollycoddle Felix – to Oscar’s chagrin.

David Ross Paterson, Grant Piro, Hayden Spencer and Drew Tingwell
bring to comic life Oscar and Felix’s poker pals as they compete for not only the gambling winnings, but also for the most acerbic and witty lines.

Christina Smith’s realistic set design of an apricot and cream 60s apartment provides the ideal setting for the play.

The Go-Go dancing scene change was a cute interlude but the vacuum cleaner silhouette choreography was an odd choice for an early scene transition.

Although this production of Simon’s famous comedy does not hit all the necessary high points, Greenslade and Micallef trade on their natural, comic instincts to make it an entertaining night in the theatre.

By Kate Herbert

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