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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Haymarket


  Maureen Lipman and Harry Shearer/ Manuel Harlan

Playwright Oliver Cotton bites off more than the audience can chew in Daytona and asks us to swallow whole a sequence of events whose dramatic potential is never fully realised.
The time is the mid-80s. The setting is Brooklyn, New York. Accountant Joe Zimmerman (Harry Shearer) and his wife Elli (Maureen Lipman) are in their early 70s. He’s retired but does some part-time work for a long-standing client. Though he and Elli bicker incessantly, they seem contented enough with one another and share a love of ballroom dancing. As the play opens they’re preparing to take part in a competition for seniors, with, it would appear, a good chance of winning. So far so ordinary.
That evening, while Elli is at her sister’s putting some finishing touches to the dress she’ll be wearing, there’s a buzz on the intercom system. Enter Billy (Cotton), Joe’s brother whom he hasn’t seen for 30 years. It’s the middle of winter and bitterly cold, but Billy is dressed in a sporty Hawaiian t-shirt and an overcoat. And looking pretty disheveled.
(Spoiler alert!Stop reading now if you’d rather not know the details on which the rest of the plot pivots.)
Once partners in a potentially money-making concern, Billy suddenly upped and left the business, leaving Joe in serious financial trouble and without telling him where he was going or discussing his future plans. In a series of monologues, Billy fills Joe in on the details of the past 30 years. (He married out of the Jewish faith, had two children, became a successful real-estate dealer and lives in Cleveland, Ohio). His bombshell, though, and the reason for his visit is that, while on holiday with his wife in Daytona, Florida, he shot, in cold-blood, a man he recognised as a Nazi war criminal at whose hands he and Joe suffered in a concentration camp in 1943.
Billy, who years ago also happened to change his name and is now a wanted man, has come to Brooklyn, unsure of what else to do, hoping Joe will return to Daytona with him to verify that the victim – who has also changed his identity – is a mass murderer who escaped from the Russians after the war.
There’s a further plot twist involving Elli that I won’t reveal. 
Festering somewhere in this explosive situation is the potential for a gripping personal drama. But it needs a more assured dramatist to pull if off. In its current form, the narrative is implausibly far-fetched. Structurally it’s too schematic (five minutes into the play Elli conveniently exits for the rest of the act to make way for the big confrontation scene between the two brothers.) But the scene as written by Cotton makes it difficult to believe these siblings hadn’t had any contact for 30 years. It simply doesn’t ring true.
Nor is there any plausible explanation as to why Billy changed his name and his religion. He wasn’t on the run from the law at the time, and though we’re told he resented his brother’s dominance when they were business partners, nothing really traumatic occurred to justify this drastic makeover in his life.
Top-billed Lipman is wasted in the first act, but fine in the second. The ballroom dancing demonstration she and the excellent Shearer give at Billy’s request, while highly unlikely in the circumstances, is spot on. This is a truthful performance that manages to bulldoze its way through some of the narrative obstacles that playwright Cotton’s inexperience creates.
I particularly appreciated the way her accent fluctuated between New York and, when lost in her Austrian past, middle Europe.
The shambling Billy, played not altogether convincingly by Cotton, is potentially the most interesting character in the play. His attempts to assuage the guilt he feels at abandoning both Joe and his faith by offering, as a redemptive gift to his brother, the murder of the Nazi guard, needs far more accomplished writing than it gets here. The ideas are fine; the execution is not.
Director David Grindley does the best he can with the material and every now and then gives us tantalising glimpses of what a better playwright might have made of it all.


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