This Woody Allen play was first performed in – where else – New York in 1969, but it has been a long while since it was last staged in London. On this hugely enjoyable showing, though, it’s hard to work out why it hasn’t become a director’s favourite. Funny and fast-paced, it boasts one zingy one-liner after another, and offers director, actors and audience alike the chance to have a hell of a lot of fun.
Perhaps it is difficult to find actors willing to step into Woody Allen’s shoes. He originally played the lead, Allan Felix, and he’s a quintessential Woody character: neurotic, nervy, and self-analysing but also quick-witted and intelligent. We first meet film critic Allan huddled away in his bedroom, mouthing along to lines from his favourite movie, The Maltese Falcon, and trying to avoid the reality of the divorce he’s just had to finalise. As the play goes on, he attempts to find romance once again, helped out by his best friend’s wife Linda, whom – inevitably – he ends up falling for.
It must have been impossible for the man who has here taken on the role – Tim Frost – to read Allan’s lines without hearing Woody Allen’s voice while doing so, so he deserves huge credit for delivering them with immaculate timing but without ever descending into a straight-up impersonation. Allen is definitely evoked, but Frost’s performance is such that you never find yourself comparing him overly with the “real” thing. Dejected and lethargic one moment, fizzing with nervous energy the next, it’s a performance that relies on great physicality as much as the capacity to deliver a gag, and Frost proves himself more than up to the task. He keeps the energy levels high and the audience onside even though he’s playing someone who is, ultimately, a remarkably self-absorbed character.
It’s not Frost’s show alone and he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Amy Bailey makes Linda a warm and sympathetic, someone whom Allan can’t help but fall in love with, and while her work-obsessed husband Dick could easily be two-dimensional, James Kermack ensures there’s something for the audience to engage with. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is just how much Shaun Stone manages to get out of his role as Bogart, the actor who steps out of the screen to help Allan win and woo his ‘dames’. He may have precious few lines, but his questionable ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ advice is delivered with deadpan brilliance.
Indeed, director John Plews has elicited uniformly enjoyable performances from his cast, and he’s added some neat visual jokes, too. And the production looks great; the large performance space is plastered with movie posters and littered with TV dinner cartons to recreate Allan’s messy New York apartment.
In fact, the only real problems here are with the play rather than the production. In this effort at least, Allen displays a surer hand with comedy than he does with pathos, meaning the key emotional scenes don’t quite match the impact of those which have been written purely for laughs. But it hardly matters. The gags are great, the performances strong and, perhaps most importantly, it’s simply impossible to watch without smiling.