TIM PIGOTT-SMITH SHOWS HOW IT’S DONE
Few better fates can befall a new playwright than to have Tim Pigott-Smith cast – perfectly – at the heart of your premiere. One of the finest modern Lears and a sharp-minded director, when he takes on a role he brings undiluted intelligence and detail. In Larry Belling’s début play he is Lester Riley, a Long Island TV and radio repairman, widowed and recovering from a stroke. We meet him – convincingly lopsided, even his left eye seeming to droop – in a wheelchair at his wife’s memorial service, confusing his adult children with a debonair grin beneath his battered baseball cap. From then on, even when immobile in a hospital bed his air of canny determined mischief drives the play. He is convincingly in physical decline: only in moments of surreal conversation with his wife’s ghost do we see the nimble, resourceful man he was.
The resourcefulness is still there, because Lester is aware that he and his wife neglected their family: he for work, she for “retarded” children like their own Franklin. Who is now institutionalized and never visited by his three siblings, themselves on bad terms with one other and with life. Monroe (Andrew Langtree) is a smooth dishonest accountant, Ike (Fergal McElherron ) a scruff fresh out of jail, and Cory (Kirstie Malpass) neurotically OCD about germs and constantly washing. We learn a bit more about each – sometimes rather too pat – but Lester has a ploy to bring them together. He lets it drop ‘accidentally’ that he made a fortune working and investing with the local Mafia, and announces that he is marrying his Japanese nurse Lily (Julia Sandiford), 27 years younger and a widow with a child. And leaving her everything.
There is enjoyable comedy to be extracted from this situation and Belling nails quite a bit of it, not least in the larky relationship of Pigott-Smith and the nurse. The children’s affront provides some good moments, the best being when Ike visits one of the local godfathers to arrange his father’s extinction. And though I cannot say that the final reveal is much of a surprise, Kate Golledge’s direction offers decent obfuscation. And just when you are flinching a bit at the aw-gee-I-love ya finale – what TV sitcom writers call an “American Moment” – our hero hits us with a top pun about cremation.
Jez Bond’s brave, smart new theatre has a record of introducing interesting plays set in America: Melanie Marnich’s haunting These Shining Lives, and a starry production of Daytona with Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer. Belling is the newest-fledged playwright so far, having worked in publicity, music biz and radio commercials. You could murmur that he brings from this a certain over-easy facility, an overemphatic underlining. All the same, it’s a good yarn with an honest heart, even if the latter spends a bit too much time on its sleeve. And Pigott-Smith is a treat.
box office 020 7870 6876 http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 2 March