Park Theatre presents
Libby Purves [18th July 2013]
Smart work. London’s youngest theatre corners the premiere of Oliver Cotton’s new three-hander with one of the most intelligent trios in town: Maureen Lipman and John Bowe are joined by Harry Shearer, whose credits run from Spinal Tap to The Simpsons (as the voice of Burns, Smithers and Flanders). For each in turn, it is a dazzling showcase.
There are long, emotionally charged narrative monologues (each has more than one), demanding from the others the equally difficult art of listening and reacting. For 20 minutes in the first act, Lipman is off stage and Shearer hardly gets a word in, as Bowe — his younger, bigger and more chaotically dressed brother, Billy — barges into his evening after a 30-year disappearance with a long and apparently pointless holiday anecdote, culminating in a very sharp point indeed. But while he tells it, you watch Shearer as much as Bowe. That’s classy.
I won’t spoil the shock, so circumspectly say only that Lipman (Ellie) and Shearer (Joe) are a Jewish couple in their seventies getting ready for a senior ballroom dance competition in 1980s Brooklyn (the decade is a clue).
Billy turns up in a Hawaiian shirt under an ill-fitting tweed suit, sockless and animated, unapologetic about wrecking their business by his disappearance in the 1950s. He has a shocking bit of news, related to what happened half a century ago on another continent and an event two days ago in a resort hotel on Daytona Beach.
Quite apart from the big bad news, there is private emotional history to untangle; betrayals on many levels. Cotton plays with the fact that it is not only criminals but victims who may reject old identities, lest victimhood itself become a badge. There are outbreaks of sudden shocking rage and grief; I have never seen Lipman stronger. Yet it is not a bleak play but a thoughtful, sharp one, well aware of the absurdity within tragedy and the potential gulf between male angst and dry female pragmatism (Lipman, of course, is mistress of the latter). A meditation, too, on long life and the need to come home to old alliances, if only to let them go.
The director is David Grindley, fresh from his success with another treatment of the psychological fallout of war, The American Plan. It would be tempting to say that he only needed to let these three get on with it, but I suspect there was much more to it than that. He certainly offers extraordinary, animating moments to remember: and not just Lipman hurling Chinese takeaways at her husband. Though I did enjoy that bit, a lot.
Emily Jupp [18th July 2013]
'Maureen Lipman's delivery is utterly mesmerising'
Daytona is a new work by the actor-turned-playwright Oliver Cotton and is only the third production to appear so far at the shiny new Park Theatre, which opened in May this year but is already attracting some brilliant talent to match up to the Park’s state-of-the-art facilities.
Set in New York in 1986, Joe (Harry Shearer) and Elli Zimmerman (Maureen Lipman) are married Jewish immigrants in their 70s, with a shared love of ballroom dancing. One night Joe’s brother, Billy (a gregarious John Bowe), who’s been absent since 1955, suddenly bursts back into their lives.
Elli and Joe’s relationship is comfortable but humdrum, with a fair amount of quibbling. Ellie gently scolds him with the worn-in manner of someone who’s been married for over 50 years. When she asks what he’ll wear for a dance competition, Joe responds: “The blue” and she shoots back with a disdainful tone: “Bring the others”.
Lipman’s droll delivery is a masterwork in understated acting but she also knows when to let rip, whereas Shearer is a calm, pragmatic counterpart to both her and Bowe’s wild-eyed, unreliable story teller. Cotton has a gift for fusing those humorous, everyday trivialities with the fantastical – and making the most unbelievable story seem real.
Billy’s explanation of why he has suddenly re-appeared after 30 years’ absence takes up much of the first half. The big reveal is teasingly drawn out – sometimes frustratingly so – but it is punched through with a dry New Yorker wit that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Woody Allen film.
Both the men are attracted to Elli, characterised by Lipman as a soulful yet practical woman who’s had her share of pain. It’s easy to see why they’re drawn to her; Lipman’s fantastic monologue about chasing a lost love through the city is filled with the same kind of everyday beauty and ugliness as Elli’s life with Joe – there are no dramatic landscapes but there is interest and danger in the small things. “The thorns tore at my coat and the ground was covered with awful things and on the other side…was the water – the sea, the bay, the oily, freezing, black bay all scattered with ice floats and garbage.”
Her delivery is utterly mesmerising and despite the clashing orange and green décor of the apartment laid out on the stage, you feel you’re with her, shivering on a cold December night (quite a feat on a hot summer evening – even with the Park’s top-notch air conditioning).
Charles Spencer [19th July 2013]
Oliver Cotton's new play find Maureen Lipman in first rate form, says Charles Spencer.
The Park Theatre opened a couple of months ago in stylish premises just a minute’s walk from Finsbury Park Station. It’s a daring venture in these straitened times and it’s good to report that the place seems to be thriving. The attractive bars are busy, the ice cream and coffee are excellent and the programming is ambitious. Best of all in this unexpectedly hot summer the air conditioning works a treat.
The latest offering in the main house, closely modelled on the Donmar Warehouse, is Oliver Cotton’s new play Daytona, which finds the much loved Maureen Lipman in first-rate form.
It is however a devil of a play to write about. Though not exactly a thriller much of its impact depends on two big dramatic reveals. So I will follow the convention of whodunit reviewing and confine my description of the plot to the first act, and you will just have to take it on trust that the second half is equally absorbing.
The action is set in Brooklyn in 1986, in the apartment of Joe (Harry Shearer) and his wife Elli (Lipman) a Jewish couple in their early seventies. Joe still does a little accountancy work but their passion is for ballroom dancing and we see them practising some nifty moves at the start of the show in preparation for a “seniors” competition the following night. They niggle at each other a little but are clearly close and content with their lot, but while Elli is out picking up her ballroom dress, Joe’s brother Billy (John Bowe) arrives.
The siblings haven’t seen each other for more than 30 years and the cause of their estrangement is one of the play’s puzzles. But Billy, bizarrely dressed in a winter coat and a Hawaian shirt has urgent news to impart. While spending the winter at Daytona Beach in Florida, he recognised one of the guards at the concentration camp where all three characters were incarcerated by the Nazis. He was a man who shot people at random and beat prisoners to death with a spade. Harry bought a gun, conducted an execution in the hotel swimming pool, escaped in the subsequent confusion and is now seeking sanctuary with his brother.
It is a gripping story, powerfully told and excellently performed. Bowe, a great shambolic bear of a man, superbly captures Billy’s mixture of elation and confusion as he knocks back the whisky, too wired to know whether he has done the best or the worst thing in his life. Meanwhile Shearer suggests the guarded antipathy Joe feels for his brother who has turned up in such dramatic circumstances and expects to be helped out. Infuriatingly I cannot write much about Lipman’s performance without giving too much away, but after initially treating Billy with glacial politeness she plumbs moving depths of emotion and pain as she is forced to confront both the current crisis and the painful secrets of the past.
David Grindley finds all the play’s considerable strengths, including its many moments of sharp humour, and persuades the audience to suspend its disbelief when the plot veers towards the implausible. This is a compelling and deeply humane production and one I warmly recommend.
THE DAILY MAIL
Patrick Marmion [19th July 2013]
Verdict: Beatty dials up a cracking cracking performance
Maureen Lipman has taken on some fairly flimsy roles in recent years, but here at last she shows us what she’s really made of. The play is about an elderly Jewish couple leading a sedate life of modest home improvement and ballroom dancing in 1980s Brooklyn - only for their peace and tranquility to be turned on its head by the return of Lipman’s husband’s long-lost brother.
At first this play, by actor Oliver Cotton, seems like another Nazi revenge saga, but it turns out to be a conventional yet no less absorbing love triangle with a twist. As so often with plays by actors, there are terrific parts with vividly related stories. The husband may seem like a staid ex-accountant, but he is driven by depths of passion and frustration. He is also sharply played by Harry Shearer, who has the restless, fragile and neurotic presence of Woody Allen, without the gags and glasses. He burns with sharp-tongued indignation.
As his mildly bossy wife, Lipman reveals hidden depths of her own. Beneath her Jewish American front, tinged with traces of a German accent, a bright passionate younger woman comes alive with the return of the errant brother. And as this brother, John Bowe almost steals the show — he’s a pleasure to watch.