Hollywood star Danny DeVito and our own beloved Richard Griffiths, who was so unforgettably funny and poignant in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, have opened to rave reivews in the wonderful West End revival of The Sunshine Boys (1972).
They play Willie Clark and Al Lewis, an old vaudeville double-act who worked together for 43 years, broke up in animosity, and are grouchily reunited 11 years later for a TV special.
Just to look at this pair is enough to make you grin broadly. DeVito is short, stout, apparently bereft of a neck and prone to extraordinary arias of frustration and simmering discontent. At times he physically vibrates with fury. Griffiths, in contrast, is massively obese, almost spookily calm in his demeanour, and moves with a curious, unexpected delicacy. You get the feeling that he could eat a couple of DeVitos, sunny-side up, for breakfast and still have room for a generous portion of corned beef hash on the side.
This deliciously quirky couple strike great showers of comic sparks off each other. DeVito, grouchy, rumpled and patrolling the squalid New York hotel apartment he inhabits like some furious caged animal, seems physically to inflate with outrage as he remembers the way his former comic partner used to jab him in the chest with his finger and spray spittle all over him. Griffiths, in contrast, brings a sweet reasonableness and shy fastidiousness to his role, though every so often his fleshy face betrays intense pain at DeVito’s more brutal sallies.
You could accuse the piece of being formulaic. Indeed, presenting the relationship between two men as if it were a festering marriage is a trick Simon himself pulled off earlier in The Odd Couple.
But sentimentality is largely kept at bay here, even when DeVito’s character suffers a heart attack, while the re-creation of their most famous routine for the TV show, in which DeVito plays a randy doctor twitching with lust for his pneumatic nurse and Griffiths a befuddled tax inspector in a terrible wig, is alone worth the price of admission. The sight of DeVito’s panting, goggle-eyed attempts to get a better look up his nurse’s skirt is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Thea Sharrock directs a pitch-perfect production that beautifully captures fleeting moments of tenderness in the comedy without ever turning mushy. And the supporting roles are all excellently played, while rightly allowing the limelight to fall on DeVito and Griffiths. This is a golden evening that finds the West End at the top of its game.
Source: Charles Spencer, The Telegraph.