The Barn Theatre in the charming old village of Little Easton must be one of Essex’s best kept secrets. As you sit at your table nursing a cider and facing the timbered proscenium, you half expect Bing and Rosemary to appear in Santa outfits and burst into song. But, though the village may date from the twelfth century, there’s nothing fuddy-duddy about the shows they present there, nor the warm welcome and jolly atmosphere that awaits you.
If, as the Polo slid under the Dartford Tunnel, I had any misgivings at the thought of yet another evening with Neil Simon’s popular play, they were quickly dismissed. Fire-cracker comedy is arguably the hardest form of theatre to pull off - and when you’re also coping with a foreign accent too? So often the constraints of evening rehearsals and lack of a decent run during which to hone such a piece of pure entertainment, with all its Americanisms and one-liners, can be the kiss of death. What a joy, then, to report that from the first few moments of Diana Bradley’s beautifully observed and paced production, we knew we were in for two hours of sheer hilarity.
Deep and meaningful Neil Simon ain’t - and his ‘female version’ of The Odd Couple isn’t quite top-notch either. Often his humour seems contrived and the construction stretches several points (the time it takes someone to mix a cocktail just to enable another conversation to take place outside their hearing, or for someone to answer a doorbell, defies belief). Yet, there’s sufficient verbal fun and home truths to keep us roaring for the duration, especially when we’re in the hands of such a finely-tuned ensemble as this.
Jan Ford’s ‘butch’ Olive, who for all her dryness is a generous and compassionate buddy; and Rita Vango’s feminine, controlling Florence - like so many needy people, much tougher than she appears - were a well-matched and contrasted duo as the incompatible, sparring flat-mates. And they never missed a trick. Carol Parradine, Marcia Baldry, Lynda Shelverton and Judy Lee as their well-groomed friends, also provided the right degree of Desperate Housewives camaraderie. As Manolo and Jesus, the Spanish ‘lads’ upstairs and would-be lust interest, Rodney Foster and John Richardson were also a well-drilled double act. I especially enjoyed John’s ‘Latin’ flourishes, just a breath away from OTT - like so much in this enjoyable production.
A nice choice of bouncy entr’acte music and Richard Pickford and Steve Bradley’s smart Riverside Drive apartment set all added to the New York atmosphere. Occasionally, given the acoustics of the building and the range of Big Apple - and Spanish - accents I could have done with a tadge more vocal attack; otherwise it was ace!