His bio describes Neil Simon as "one of the world's most beloved playwrights", his plays have won numerous Tony awards and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Lost In Yonkers. Even those who are not regular theatres patrons have probably heard his name, even an extended audience in Australia. My own relationship with Neil Simon had previously been limited to TV and his long running show The Odd Couple which I loved. So I was keen to see his work on stage and this renowned play Barefoot In The Park and the Ensemble Theatre production directed by Mark Kilmurry.
Set in the Sixties in New York City, Barefoot In the Park is set over three days of the first week in the new marriage of Corie (Mia Lethbridge) and Paul (Jake Speer).
Yet how relevant is a play about newlyweds today?
In the mix of what we are presented in theatre, and within the range of the repertoire presented by the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, it was a joy to lighten up, to just laugh and be entertained. Right from the opening, and throughout the three acts, the audience did just that. We laughed and laughed, big hearty gutsy belly laughs.
The cast of five were well chosen though varying in experience. Timing is everything in comedy, or so they say. And trooper Georgie Parker faultlessly executed her role as Mrs Banks, Corie's mother. Her timing was exquisite. In her opening night role, Parker delivered one of the best stage performances that I have seen in some time. Every word, every gesture, was perfect.
Daniel Mitchell played Parker's love interest and upstairs neighbour Victor Velasco with suave intrigue, sensitivity and debonair wit. Jamie Oxenbould made intermittent appearances with sound words of advice and funny one liners as the telephone repair man though he was just occasionally a tad overstated.
It is hard to believe that as the newlyweds both Lethbridge and Speer were making stage debuts. Surrounded by experienced talent the husband and wife not only held their own but each individually and together as the pivotal characters in this play gifted the audience with shining entertaining theatre. The contagious exuberance and adventure of Mia Lethbridge uplifted the energy of the story throughout the play and the "stuffed shirt" Jake Speer quietly slotted into his more serious foil. For each there were first night glimpses where we saw either nerves or inexperience but they were so minor that you had to strain to find them. In all they should be very proud of their performances and excited for their dramatic futures.
In this vibrant comedy, Kilmurry and crew maximised the use of dialogue and silent pauses, music and movement, vintage costumes and mezzanine apartment setting. But where was the hot pink lipstick? Designer Alicia Clements gave just enough nod to the original era while still allowing the play to be embraced fifty years later by the contemporary audience.
Beyond the New York accents, the now historic context, and the laughs, Barefoot In The Park is also a timeless statement about life, relationships and how we connect with those we love.
Barefoot In The Park opened last night and the season at the Ensemble Theatre continues until Saturday October 8th.
Photos by Clare Hawley.