The Sunshine Boys

Court One, Christchurch

24/07/2010 - 04/09/2010

Production Details


Two old dogs have to learn new shtick in Neil Simon’s comedy THE SUNSHINE BOYS, the first play in The Court Theatre’s TelstraClear 2010-2011 Season, opening on July 24th. In Simon’s comedy, two retired entertainers are made a lucrative offer to reform their vaudeville double-act for a television special. But the pair – now in their seventies – haven’t spoken to one another since their acrimonious split.

“Curiously, THE SUNSHINE BOYS has never been staged in New Zealand before. To me it’s as relevant – and as funny – today as it was 40 years ago,” says director Ross Gumbley. “Simon drew from real-life vaudeville pairs such as Smith and Dale (for their on-stage banter) or Gallagher and Shean (for the backstage animosity) to create two characters that can’t stand each other but together are greater than the sum of their parts.” 

Michael Keir-Morrissey makes his Court debut as Willy Clark, living in an apartment surrounded by copies of old “Variety” magazines; veteran Court actor Geoffrey Heath plays Al Lewis, the more successful of the duo following their split. Rounding out the cast are Jonathan Martin (as Willy’s long-suffering nephew /agent), Roslen Langdon, Dan Bain and Eddy Dever. 

Gumbley feels his two leads encapsulate the curmudgeonly comedians perfectly. “Geoffrey has a wonderfully dry sense of humour and is great at one-liners; while Michael has the rare gift of being able to perform ‘comedy with heart’. Al and Willy’s dialogue plays like an extended vaudeville routine, which is a testament to Simon’s skill – his characters think in one-liners – as well as to the actors’ skill.” 

Neil Simon is one of the most regularly-performed playwrights in the world (notably having had four plays on Broadway at the same time in 1966), as well as a prolific screenwriter; his most internationally recognised work arguably being “The Odd Couple”. 

“THE SUNSHINE BOYS is something of a companion piece to plays like WHO WANTS TO BE 100? and HOME LAND – which also deals with issues facing elderly men. It also could be seen as a “sequel” of sorts to BACKSTAGE (set at the height of the vaudeville era); THE SUNSHINE BOYS looks at the fallout for two performers forty years on,” says Gumbley.

The New Zealand première season of THE SUNSHINE BOYS plays at The Court Theatre from July 24th until September 4th.

Venue: Court One, The Court Theatre, Christchurch
Production Dates: 24 July – 4 September 2010
Performances: 6pm Monday / Thursday; 7:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (no show Sundays).

2pm matinee Saturday 31 July
Tickets: Adults $45, Senior Citizens $38, Tertiary Students $26, School Children $15, Group discount (20+) $36, Matinee $29 (31 July only)
Bookings: The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Boulevard; 963 0870 or

Willy Clark: Michael Keir-Morrissey
Al Lewis: Geoffrey Heath
Ben Silverman: Jonathan Martin
Vaudevillian, TV Eddie: Edward Dever
Vaudevillian, TV Patient, TV Director: Dan Bain
Nurse O’Neill: Roslen Langton

DIRECTOR: Ross Gumbley
STAGE MANAGER: Annabel Butler
OPERATOR: Darren McKane / Stephen Brinkhurst
SET DESIGN: Tony Geddes
LIGHTING & AV DESIGN: Brendan Albrey
SOUND DESIGN: Hamish Oliver
SET CONSTRUCTION: Richard Daem, Henri Kerr, Maurice Kidd
COSTUME CONSTRUCTION: Annie Graham, Beryl Hampson

Humour and pathos in nit-picky pair’s behaviour

Review by Lindsay Clark 25th Jul 2010

What happens behind the scenes – or in this case the swagged crimson curtains of classic vaudeville – provokes as much laughter as the onstage stage material itself in Neil Simon’s 1972 gem. With echoes of the real life break-ups and bitterness so often associated with real life successful comedy duos, the The Sunshine Boys gives us a study of a legendary pair in their fading years.

The desperate attempts at self justification from each of them become excruciatingly funny as they battle any move to resolve the acrimony caused by the sudden ‘retirement’ of one partner eleven years before, as preparations for a television retrospective on American comedy become their last chance to strut their stuff. Director Ross Gumbley is working with rich comic material here.

The resulting tension is shrewdly observed by writer and director, with nagging behaviours and contrariness charging many a scene with hilarious irony for us, the onlookers. Less appealing is the coverage of transitions, where we are offered another couple of clowns in front of the velvet curtain sealing off the real world. The dislocation is a minor irritation but a real one.

The humour then relies heavily on the central characters, with special focus on Willie Clark, occupier of a starkly shabby hotel room and expert in the art of maintaining a defensive shell. Reduced to watching vapid television until his weekly copy of Variety is delivered by his agent nephew Ben, he presents a cantankerous and perverse denial of failing health and market value. When a real opportunity arises, to work again with Al Lewis, who ‘walked out him’, stress levels all round are heightened before some sort of rapprochement is achieved.

Willie is brought to life with perceptive insight by Michael Keir-Morrissey. Although his is an exaggerated character, we still have to care about him and the subtlety of vulnerability is neatly achieved without sentimentality. His off-sider, Geoffrey Heath, as Al, gives another staunch performance. He is more restrained than Willie, a tad more dignified, but just as obdurate and pernickety in holding his ground.

That minefield between them is frequently negotiated by the versatile Jonathan Martin as Ben Silverman, a role he plays with comically alternating exasperation and concern. A health crisis for Willie brings on ‘non-agitatable’ Nurse O’Neill, delivered with uncompromising clarity by Roslen Langton, while extra roles including the transition clowns are purposefully handled by Dan Bain and Edward Dever.

In design terms too, the play is well served. The set from Tony Geddes enhances the real-life/ fictional life split and Annie Graham’s restrained but identifiably seventies costumes locate the characters firmly in their New York world. Brendan Albrey had lighting and A.V. design in his brief, contributing effectively to both.

Tastes in comedy can be expected to change over the decades, but human nature does not and the play still scores the humour as well as the pathos of that recognition. The final delicious irony, as the nit-picky pair face their reality in the same Home for Ageing Actors, is that there, problems are likely to multiply. The result for onlookers will go on being very funny.
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