Many years ago Mrs Chrisparkle declared “Barefoot in the Park” to be one of her all-time favourite films, so it was a no-brainer that we should see this new touring production of Neil Simon’s original play, directed by, as well as starring, Maureen Lipman. It was a huge success on Broadway back in the 1960s, but a 2006 revival flopped.
So is it risky to resurrect it again? As the curtain goes up to the strains of Jack Jones’ Wives and Lovers, you expect some 1960s New York glamour, trendiness and sophistication. But of course, the reality is newlywed Corrie and Paul’s tiny basic apartment has no heating and a broken skylight. In New York’s 2006 people felt reasonably affluent and secure in their jobs, and maybe this setting didn’t connect much with those theatregoers. In Britain’s 2012, however, times are hard, and I think we can all understand the plight of the young couple starting out in life with a grotty flat and not a lot of money, but full of hope in their hearts.
So, whilst the play is rather dated in some aspects – in this world of children owning smartphones, Corrie’s delight in having her first telephone delivered and installed is charming but seems anachronistic today – the basic themes of the play are still relevant, and I think it’s a good choice of play to revive. Plenty of young couples still start out with nothing but enthusiasm; there are always going to be potentially tricky mothers/mothers-in-law; and that fine line of blending your leisure time and home life with the demands of your work remains blurry. And of course, as long as people are people, and are therefore flawed, they are always going to be a source of disappointment to their partners at some point, which is when you have to work out your compromises in order to get a happy balanced life together. This is the stark reality that faces Corrie and Paul once the initial excitement of the wedding and the moving in together has died down.
Tim Goodchild’s set very evocatively recreates that top-floor Brownstone apartment – bare and basic, with a very dismal and dirty glass roof; the door to the bedroom that you can hardly open because the bed is in the way; the clothes rail inconveniently far from the bedroom (no space for a wardrobe); the useless tiny kitchen that would be impossible to cook in; all looking tired and drab, but nevertheless suggesting that exciting prospect that with a bit of time and effort you could make it look really swish.
Right at the centre of the story is Corrie, played by Faye Castelow. Young, idealistic, and keen to experience everything she can, her delight in her new surroundings is a joy – she’s playing at being an adult for the first time and loving every minute. You don’t want life to knock the innocent exuberance out of her, as it inevitably will. It’s a very good performance, quirky and funny, whilst remaining totally within the bounds of reality. She is matched by Dominic Tighe’s Paul, his feet firmly on the ground, aghast at the number of steps you have to climb to get to the flat (one presumes Corrie agreed the deal on a girlish whim), deeply in love with her but also very aware of his responsibilities and obligations with work and the more serious aspects of life. It’s an equally good performance. Their second act argument scene is conducted with a splendid mixture of pace, silliness, outrage and genuine disappointment. For me it was the highlight of the play. Through their argument they learn the art of compromise and it’s a heart-warming moment when you realise Paul did actually go barefoot in the park.
Maureen Lipman is Corrie’s mother, Mrs Banks, and it’s a beautifully understated comic performance. She conveys all the regular motherly concerns without ever becoming a real nag. The role gives her ample opportunities to show off her brilliant comic timing; and you also get very telling insights into her personal loneliness, which will be more acute now that Corrie is living away from home. On top of all that you can just glimpse that slight twinkle in her eye suggesting there might be a more companionable life ahead for her with Victor, played by Oliver Cotton, who gives a funny but again totally believable performance of the weird neighbour with outrageous tastes and extravagant gestures. Ms Lipman’s direction of the play is what makes this production really tick. It emphasises the laughs within the text – some of the lines are still very, very funny – but without ever going over the top. It could have been tempting to make Mrs Banks a hideous dragon and Victor a grotesque foreigner and poke cruel fun at their backgrounds and attitudes. Instead the production allows all its characters to have their personal motivations and genuine emotions recognised and respected. It makes for a much more believable and rewarding scenario.
There’s also some entertaining support from David Partridge’s Telephone Repair Man and Hayward Morse’s Delivery Man – how nice (if surprising in this kind of role) to see him on the stage again (original Brad in Rocky Horror, Nick in What the Butler Saw, Tony award nominee in Butley on Broadway, and son of the late Barry Morse). The full house at Oxford gave a warm reception to this surprisingly thoughtful production of a charming play, with lots of funny lines and a feelgood factor. It’s still touring, and with Richmond and Cambridge still to come, I’d recommend it for an entertaining night out.