Sometimes you leave a theatre thinking, “How does anyone make up such an intricate plot?” and, if you’re lucky, you might add, “…but make it both clear and funny at the same time?” Such is the case with Rumours, one of Neil Simon’s cleverest plays. It is Charley and Vivian’s 20th wedding anniversary and they have invited eight friends to dinner, but Vivian is nowhere to be seen, while Charley has retired to his bedroom having – believe it or not – shot himself in the ear-lobe. The four couples appear one by one and get caught up in a web of deception that becomes ever more tangled.
Neil Simon was brilliant at creating women who have some monster in them but are fundamentally likeable, if only because they are so good at deflating the self-important preening of their menfolk. Chris, the wife in the first couple to arrive, holds the first quarter of the play together, playing off her bossy husband, Ken. Julie Lax is good both then and later, when Chris has taken enough vodka to anaesthetise her against the developing chaos. As Ken, Rich Bennett captures the desperation of a man who feels that it is his duty to control the situation but soon finds that his attempts are doomed.
Claire, the wife in couple no. 2, is a particularly attractive character, viewing life through the filter of humour and not taking anything too seriously, but she must be infuriating to live with. Lucie Evans puts these characteristics across well and makes the most of some of the wittiest lines in the play. As Leonard, her husband, Nick Guy gives the stand-out performance of the evening. He has that rare gift of acting with his whole body and in the first act is excellent, even when Leonard is at his most impossibly self-centred. But it is in the second act that his performance becomes something special, with a long monologue which is not only a feat of memory but a tour de force of comic timing.
Ernest is a psycho-analyst and has plenty of material to work on in his fellow-guests. Steve Russell plays him as rather a benign figure, although he, too, is rather pleased with himself. His wife, Cookie, knows how to deal with that and Angela Chappell is splendidly forthright in the part, a highlight of the play being when she makes one exit on hands and knees, while retaining her dignity. In the final couple, Karen Parker-Geddes makes a good fist of playing Cassie, especially as she is the least convincing character in the piece, being a mixture of wronged wife, femme fatale and believer in the power of crystals. Pomposity and arrogance are occupational hazards for aspiring politicians like Cassie’s husband, Glenn, and Andrew Chappell conveys them effectively. Hazel Burgess is scarily authoritative as a policewoman.
Neil Simon’s work was in some ways the forerunner of fast-moving, wisecracking TV shows like Friends and Frasier. The energetic cast keep up the pace well, but occasionally at the cost of the clear diction which is necessary if the audience are to enjoy Simon’s snappy one-liners to the full.
A sofa downstage, facing front, is always a worrying sign, but director Rosemary Guy does not fall into the trap of letting anyone get stuck in it for too long. In fact, there is a lot of movement around the wide, rather shallow stage, but none of it seems unnatural or forced. She has masterminded a polished production of which she and the cast can be proud.
There are performances on Thursday 28 and Friday 29 October at 7.30pm.