I have seen enough meritorious productions of unmeritorious plays recently to last me at least the rest of the year, and this latest is the most egregious example. Maureen Lipman, Harry Shearer and John Bowe turn in almost entirely admirable performances, David Grindley directs with his customary diligence, but Oliver Cotton’s script is wearisomely predictable and manages to flee every thematic point it thinks it is addressing. Don’t read on if you’re worried about spoilers – but equally beware of plays where each plot development is signposted with hefty clues.
Septuagenarians Joe and Elli are practising in their Brooklyn apartment for a ballroom dancing competition. After Elli leaves for a dress fitting, Billy, Joe’s estranged brother, turns up for the first time in 30 years. He tells a drawn-out tale of seeing a familiar face on holiday at Daytona Beach. As soon as we hear “Franz Gruber from the camp”, half an hour in, we know that this is a Holocaust back-story and Billy is now on the run either from Gruber himself or from the law after killing Gruber. After another 10 minutes we learn that it is the latter.
We begin wondering what the twist is: was Gruber perhaps some sort of traitor? Maybe Joe and Billy are the fugitive Germans? Fifteen minutes later, no twist: the brothers are Jewish. A bit more fraternal argument, Joe disappears from the room, Elli returns and screams on seeing Billy and we feel the grim certainty, as the lights go down for the interval, that Act Two will reveal their past affair as the real reason for Billy’s disappearance all those years ago.
What we can’t predict, however, is that the big moral questions of the first act will be almost entirely ignored for virtually all the second. All three characters are finally brought together only after an hour and three-quarters, and the long-inevitable confrontation kicks off just before the two-hour mark. Another unexpected irruption is Joe and Elli’s second dance routine, which no sane person could have seen coming no matter how baldly it has been set up as a dramatic exigency.