The Sunshine Boys may be little more than an old-fashioned star vehicle, but with the sweet Little-and-Large casting of Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths this 40-year Neil Simon comedy is exceptionally well driven and wears its vintage, and that of its stars, very lightly. Instead of stunt casting, it’s a pleasure to watch two veteran actors who clearly have enormous affection for each other, playing two former vaudeville partners who no longer share the same kind of fondness.
Richard Griffiths (Al Lewis) and Danny Devito (Willie Clark) in The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Once a double act who worked together for some 43 years, they are reunited by a TV special on great comedy to revive one of their signature scenes, ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’, but all too quickly the old animosities that drove them apart re-surface, like the way Griffiths’s Al Lewis spits over DeVito’s Willie Clark as he speaks, and also jabs his finger into Willie’s chest to make his points.
Set in the bedsit of the shabby New York residential hotel where DeVito’s Willie passes his days, still clinging to the hope that his nephew agent Ben (Adam Levy) will find him work, his old sparring partner has long retired from the theatrical rat-race to live out his retirement on the New Jersey shore. Though Simon, Broadway’s ultimate gagmeister, can’t resist providing them with a sitcom-like stream of repartee, he’s also a master craftsman who beneath the comic bluster craftily sneaks in a touching portrait of male friendship and vulnerability. In true Simon fashion, there’s also an inevitable streak of sentimentality, too, but as played so beautifully by these two actors under the direction of Thea Sharrock, it feels as truthful as it rueful.
The result is a classy West End evening that yields surprising rewards.