California Suite

Hannah/Beth: Fiona Cullen
Billy/Stu: Andrew Newbon
Marvin/Mort: Paul Baker
Bunny: Holly Marsh
Millie: Susie King
Diana/Gert: Debbie Griffiths
Sidney: Bob Etherington

California Suite by Neil Simon Review by Paul Campion

Actor Jack Lemmon once said of Neil Simon “He has the ability to write characters. Even the leading characters that we’re supposed to root for are absolutely flawed. They have foibles. They have faults. But, they are human beings. They are not all bad or all good; they are people we know.”
California Suite’ finds Simon at his most humane, full of characters and situations that make you laugh and think at the same time.
Revisiting the format of Simon’s earlier hit ’Plaza Suite’, the play presents us with four separate stories concerning different occupants of the same hotel suite: rooms 203 and 204 of the Beverley Hills Hotel.
First up are divorced couple Hannah and Billy. Hannah has stayed in New York and continued her career as a magazine editor, while Billy has moved to California to ply his trade as a movie screenwriter. Supposedly meeting to discuss the future of their daughter, they wind up volleying a selection of choice one-liners at each other about everything from their married life; “I was nervous on our wedding night… unfortunately it was after we’d had sex” to the differences between the East Coast and the West Coast: “Nobody’s happy in New York, but at least they’re alive!!”.
As the tightly-wound, chain-smoking Hannah, Fiona Cullen gave us a beautifully controlled portrayal of a New York sophisticate, radiating brittle disdain for the Californian lifestyle as she stalked the stage devouring cigarette after cigarette. Marvellous.
Following recent appearances in ’The Graduate’ and ’The Glass Menagerie’ Andrew Newbon made a fine addition to his repertoire of Americans with ’Billy’, whose initial Californian casualness is soon replaced by a waspish tongue to match Hannah’s. There were laughs aplenty as these two traded jibes, but sadness too as we realised that they were perfect for each other, but could never live together.
Next occupant of the suite is conservative, Jewish businessman Marvin Michaels, waking up after a heavy night and finding himself in bed with a mysterious young woman. Whoever she is, she’s clearly not his wife. Worse, she’s unconscious, having consumed an entire bottle of vodka. Worse still, his wife Millie shows up; a farcical situation which Paul Baker (as Marvin) made the most of, frantically running around, a blur of shirt tails and boxer shorts, like a demented cross between Brian Rix and Woody Allen. With farce, of course, timing is everything. Happily, Marvin’s increasingly elaborate efforts to conceal the truth from Suzie King’s bewildered Millie benefitted from adroit direction by Nikki Packham, expert playing from both actors and a nice cameo from Holly Marsh as the comatose floozie.
The tone changes completely with the third occupants of the suite. Diana Nichols is an actress, over from England for the Oscars with her husband Sidney, an antique dealer who is becoming increasingly indiscreet about his sexual orientation. Diana has been nominated for Best Actress and is banking on the Oscar to kick-start her faltering career. So when they arrive back after the ceremony Oscar-less (and in Diana’s case, legless) the fun really starts.
In her drunken bitterness, Diana is revealed as a self-centred woman in denial about her career and her marriage. Deep down, she knows both are doomed, but refuses to admit it. In contrast, Sidney has long since accepted that his wife is living in fantasyland, but doggedly stands by her, nevertheless. Here, Bob Etherington’s gently resigned performance perfectly complemented Debbie Griffiths’ fragile, damaged Diana and gave us many funny and touching moments, making this segment my favourite of all.
Finally we meet two couples, Mort (Paul Baker) and Beth (Fiona Cullen) and Stu (Andrew Newbon) and Gert (Debbie Griffiths) who bring a face-off on the tennis court back into the bedroom. Beth has hurt her ankle during a mixed doubles match and Mort vehemently accuses Stu of causing the injury. It soon emerges that the real reason behind the aggro is that having been on holiday together for three weeks, this four are now heartily sick of each other. Small annoyances have turned into major irritants and Beth’s injury is the catalyst for an eruption. As recriminations fly tempers rise, comic violence is meted out and everyone finishes up in some sort of pain.
For me this section, though undeniably funny, is a little too ’slapstick ’ to sit happily with Simon’s usual style, but it made for an uproarious ending with the audience in stitches watching the cast trying to put each other in traction.
With its white shutters and light airiness, Tony Jenner’s split-stage set design felt suitably ’Californian’ and cleverly let us view the action in both rooms of the suite simultaneously. However, it was shame that there were occasions when some characters seemed to forget that they were supposed to be making themselves heard through the (invisible) wall.
That very minor criticism aside, Nikki Packham, her cast and crew deserve hearty congratulations on getting BLT’s 2012 season off to such a great start. I enjoyed my stay in ’California Suite’ enormously!