Neil Simon’s comedies are wonderful, but quite a few of them have aged badly. Some very perplexing updates were made for Arkle Theatre Company’s production of Rumours and the show suffers for it. The cast are giving it their best, but the whole thing lacks the controlled mania that makes Simon’s neurotic New Yorkers uproariously funny as opposed to just confused and angry.
There’s nothing wrong with performing older shows faithfully and there’s nothing wrong with playfully updating dated theatre, but mixing the two is troublesome.
Rumours is a domestic farce crossed with a murder mystery. Chris (Renée Philippi) and Ken (Pat Hymers) are the first to arrive at their friends’ - Charlie and Vivian’s - anniversary party. Charlie’s shot himself in the earlobe and Vivian’s nowhere to be found. The servants are also missing. The other guests start to arrive and there’s a series of misunderstandings and botched cover-ups as they all try to work out just what is going on. Rumours is a beautiful technical example of how to write comedy. This production is just missing the over-the-top edge that makes all the absurdity plausible. There are some good moments, but the laughs are few on the ground.
As Chris, Phillipi is at her best when playing stressed or exasperated. Hymers, playing her husband, definitely goes big, and deserves credit for imitating Sid Caesar, (Simon’s ideal performer), but his accent slides into an odd limbo somewhere between England and the Bronx. The other two couples lack the right combination of desperation, selfishness and lunacy to keep the witty dialogue flying along. They take their predicament too seriously and deprive us of the chance to laugh at the whole mess. Suzanne Senior is amusing as Cookie, the crunchy-granola housewife with back spasms. David Scott gives perhaps the strongest performance as her husband, Ernest — he’s the archetypal neurotic milquetoast psychiatrist.
Neil Simon’s dialogue simply works better in American accents — the pacing and diction are pure New York. Director Ian Aldred sets this production in London, but the setting feels extremely forced and the accents are all over the place — Chris is American, everyone else is either English or Scottish or somewhere in between. The setting and time period never feel coherent and various put-on accents slip off frequently. The play, written in the 80s, is still funny, but it’s dated. It’s necessarily set in the 80s, because all the confusion would be cleared up at once if these people had mobile phones. Given this setting, the choice of making the characters Glenn and Cassie a lesbian couple is a very odd one. There are numerous uncomfortable jokes about Chinese and Mexican servants and there’s plenty of casual sexism. Everyone’s calm acceptance of a lesbian couple, (and a lesbian politician), is very jarring in a show that’s otherwise far behind the times. There’s nothing wrong with performing older shows faithfully and there’s nothing wrong with playfully updating dated theatre, but mixing the two is troublesome.
Rumours is still very funny - just because a show has aged badly doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be performed. Arkle Theatre just haven’t managed to find their feet here.