Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, first seen in 1965, ran on Broadway for over two years, spawned two movies and three TV series (one a cartoon). It was one of the shows, along with Barefoot in the Park and Plaza Suite, which assured Simon’s reputation as a subtle, witty chronicler of middle class foibles and the battles of the sexes.
The story of the laissez-faire sports journalist Oscar who takes in his fussy friend Felix after the latter’s marriage has broken down, with disastrous consequences, obviously pleased Simon as well as he kept revisiting it. He wrote a female version in 1985 and an updated version which opened on Broadway in 2005.
Rachel O’Riordan, whose regime at Perth is showing great purpose, has chosen to revive the female version with Cara Kelly as the fastidious Florence, so tidy she straightens the telephone wire, and Abigail McGibbon as the slovenly Olive. She keeps the 1980s settings which at least keep the joke about telephone wires alive and also allows her designer, Gary McCann, to have some fun with the decor and the fashions while providing a genial soundtrack over the scene changes.
For those familiar with the original, the background poker game which regularly brings Olive and her group of friends together has been updated to a game of Trivial Pursuit, while Olive’s profession has gone from sports reporter to TV producer of some sort. The air hostess Pigeon sisters upstairs have become two Spanish brothers who work for Spanish airline Iberia (though not as cabin crew). But otherwise, many of the situations and the lines themselves are exactly the same; the “green or brown sandwiches” or the bottle of milk which is so old it is standing up in the fridge without the bottle.
You cannot fault O’Riordan and her top class company for energy and pace. They tear into the script with relish and execute a good deal of well-drilled physical comedy. There is much falling over sofas and tripping over shoes.
I was just about to give it the benefit of the doubt, forego the subtlety of Simon’s original which is submerged in the clowning about, and enjoy the knockabout fun, of which there is no shortage, when the Spanish brothers from upstairs appeared. Ewan Donald and Joseph Thomson work their socks off but are landed with comedy Spanish accents, Viva Zapata! moustaches and as a crude a representation of a national stereotype as you could wish to avoid. It's more Borat than Banderas.
And then this nagging doubt sets in about the whole adventure. In the original, the very idea of a fussy, house-proud, cooking and cleaning man was funny; is it so funny when that character is a woman? Does the comedy of the unexpected then transfer to Olive? Is the production’s madcap capering a disguise for doubts about its underlying set-up? The Perth audience, no doubt delighted to see more polished production values from its new leader, laughed uproariously. I was less convinced.
The Odd Couple - Female Version, Perth Theatre, until Oct 13 box office 01738 621031