Not only that, the play had a dream-team cast of Eli Wallach, his long-time collaborator and wife Anne Jackson (who died, aged 90, earlier this year) and Alan Arkin, while Gene Wilder later appeared in the Broadway run. Other than a flop movie version it has not been seen since, at least in this country, so this revival begs a question: has it been justly or unjustly neglected? The answer, though it may sound like a copout, is both.
The three-hander is set in that often lawless space that exists under bridges, in this case probably the Brooklyn Bridge. Unshaven, unkempt Harry Berlin (Charles Dorfman) is about to end it all by jumping into the watery abyss. He is stopped by the coincidental arrival of old school friend Milt (Nick Barber) who persuades him that there is plenty in life to love , such as Milt’s wife Ellen (Elsie Bennett) whom Milt can no longer stand. And so begins an absurdist merry-go-round of manners in which Harry takes over as Ellen’s husband while Milt moves on to his (unseen) second spouse whom he later regrets marrying.
The result is an amusing rather than outright funny meditation on the fickleness of human nature. Everyone here has a self-centred obsession with their own condition that brings to mind Steven Berkoff’s grotesquery. As the shambolic Harry, Dorfman nails the tone, bringing out the tragic and comic, and he’s well supported by Bennett and Barber. It’s difficult though to care about their fate. It quickly becomes clear that everyone here deserves one another in the worst possible sense. And although it must have been tempting to update the play, director Gary Condes sensibly keeps to the original period, recognising that it’s worth travelling back in time to visit, and probably right to leave it there.
In a tight bodice, a swishy gown that, when it moves, reveals a slim and shapely leg or two, and with red flowing hair, this is Maureen Lipman as you — or at least I — have never seen her before. This is her Carabosse — aka the wicked fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty into having way much too beauty sleep.
Partnered by children’s TV presenter Chris Jarvis as Chester the Jester, Lipman gamely sends up one or two of her own career-defining performances including Joyce Grenfell and yes, Beattie and that “ology” gag.
All go down well, and when Lipman deploys the demonic laugh she can elicit at will, a chorus of boos ensues. For my money, however, nothing is better than when she lapses into the funniest of all personas at her disposal —herself.