If being grumpy were an Olympic event, the West End would have two of London 2012’s hottest contenders.
In the red corner is Danny DeVito’s Willy Clark, a miniature malcontent who still believes he is a vaudeville star more than a decade after his last great performance.
In the blue corner is Richard Griffiths’ Al Lewis, a giant pain in the backside who used to be Clark’s double act partner back when they were known as The Sunshine Boys and had the world at their comic feet.
A decade on from that final performance, when Lewis called time on their partnership, the world has moved on, but Clark and Lewis haven’t.
This becomes all too apparent when they are coaxed out of retirement to perform one last time, pulling their Doctor sketch out of mothballs for a TV special on the history of comedy.
Forty years of bitterness and resentment are distilled into DeVito’s diminutive frame – which seems to shrink more when he stands next to the towering Griffiths – along with a decade of blaming Lewis for bringing his own career to a premature end. DeVito is a firecracker of anger, gesticulating, leaping and climbing the furniture with fury. It’s no small feat for a man of DeVito’s advancing years to deliver such a performance night after night when you consider he is on stage for the entire show.
So long have Clark and Lewis been a double act that their entire relationship feels like a sketch, each trying to score the winning punch line off the other. It is only through Neil Simon’s other characters that humanity is evoked. Adam Levy is the consummate troubled nephew, desperate for Clark to be both happy and healthy, through squirming like a trapped toad caught between two arguing rocks, while Johnnie Fiori is delightfully dry as a no-nonsense nurse, providing a useful antidote to her pneumatic colleague used in the comedy team’s outdated medical sketch.
But it is DeVito and Griffiths who share top billing, and while it makes the audience smile to see them seethe and titter to see them tetchy, it is only when the Hollywood star drops Clark’s defences in the second act that we really connect with and warm to his character. The harsh reality of aging, of losing youthful invincibility and of not being the king of the world any more finally catching up with him.