In their Brooklyn apartment on a cold December night in 1985 Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), a married Jewish couple in their seventies, are preparing for a seniors’ ballroom dance contest. When Elli leaves for a dress fitting, Joe settles down for the evening and begins to work on some accounts for his client. The opening scenes are pretty bland but touching enough, and there is some mild comedy to be found as Elli and Joe bicker like an old married couple should.
Into this cosy though over familiar set-up rushes Billy (Oliver Cotton), Joe’s long lost brother, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, a Hawaiian shirt, carrying enough Chinese food to feed a large family and, most importantly, dragging a lot of skeletons from the closet of the trio’s shared past behind him.
What exactly, or who exactly, those skeletons are is difficult to say without spoiling a plot which depends so heavily on the element of surprise. The audience eventually get to find out but what should be shocking moments of denouement are so buried in Cotton’s monologues that by the time they are unveiled the audience who haven’t already guessed either got lost around the third minute of the dull rant or merely stopped caring. Billy’s long, rambling speeches feel particularly self-indulgent since the writer is playing the part himself. Harry Shearer does a good job of portraying the shock so lacking amongst the audience and his faintly despairing Joe is an interesting character. However, the first half of the show feels like we are all – characters and spectators alike – playing the waiting game. It’s all just setting up for Maureen Lipman’s return, leaving such a large chunk of the play feeling like filler.
Lipman’s performance earns an extra star for what is really a two star show and the audience would be forgiven for heaving sighs of relief when she returns after the interval. Her Elli is complex and contradictory – impassioned yet stoical, and reassuring the men around her with maternal firmness or the pleas of a lover as she attempts to hold together the fragments of the life she went through so much to create. Once the play abandons the drama it opens with in favour of romance, Cotton’s study of elderly love is a strong one. However, the revelations that could have ignited fiery and fascinating debate on revenge, forgiveness and a deeply troubling ethical subject instead quietly flickers in the background like a disappointing tea light. It’s such a shame as there’s a gem of a concept buried underneath Cotton’s cluttered script.