Mention the name of Neil Simon to anyone and you are instantly reminded of his sharply observed wit, and a style of sophisticated one-liners that are usually uttered by cynical, worldly characters, eventually found possessing an unlikely heart of gold. With the majority of his work, more often than not, set around uptown New York during the 60’s and 70’s.
His endless supply of plays and films that originated from his busy typewriter includes some of the best-loved comedy writing of the past 50 years or so. And this would go on to make him perhaps the most financially successful writer of Broadway plays ever.
Even a scant look at his output is enough to put a pleasurable smile on the most downcast of faces: The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl, to name but a few.
His first major hit as a writer came with his 1961 Broadway play Come Blow Your Horn, a production that would set the template for many of his future successes. Two years later it was made into a popular film with Frank Sinatra in the lead role, ably supported by Lee J Cobb, hilarious as his combustible father.
This Fringe production by the amateur company The Edinburgh Makers sets the action in a cleverly recreated look of a stylish bachelor apartment in New York, circa early 1960’s. The blurb in the programme invites the audience to “join the dysfunctional Baker family in one of Neil Simon’s hilarious romps”. And yet what you really get (and the main crux of the play) is one brother’s avoidance of matrimony, whilst his younger brother (over a swift 3 week period) casts off his nerdish nervousness of life by eventually embracing the cool, hedonistic lifestyle of his elder sibling. Much to the eternal annoyance and frustration of their parents! But suffice to say that it all ends up happily with the family reunited in harmony, and the status quo more or less retained.
So, it’s a familial rights of passage saga, with a light hearted New York Jewish American slant, that invites lots of romantic complications, maternal yearnings and paternal obstinacy. Not forgetting phones ringing, doorbells ringing, and an endless supply of good-humoured one-liners as the characters walk through the door.
What impressed me most was the lead players mastery of that peculiar style of New York Jewish accent, most prevalent in the majority of Simon’s work. Although actress Carole Birse, playing the role of Connie did equally pretty well with her rendition of American Deep South tones. Not easy mixing that with your natural Scottish burr, I could well imagine. No doubt she put in a lot of patience to capture the nuances of that distinctive sound. Full marks for her efforts.
For my money, the best performance came from the young Josh Sommariva, who appeared the most comfortable on stage, as the younger brother Buddy, evoking his uncertainty at flying the family nest for the very first time, and acutely aware of how troubled and upset his parents would be at this tentative display of youthful rebellion.
But anyway, hats off to The Edinburgh Makers for attempting to bring something that little bit different to the stage and to the Fringe this year, whilst recreating in an Edinburgh Church Hall one of the forgotten comedy glories of Broadway by one of the true masters of his craft. I am sure that Mr Simon would have been most pleased by their collective efforts.