BWW Reviews: LAST OF THE DUTY FREE, Lyceum, Sheffield, 16 June 2014
One of the biggest television surprises of 2014 so far has been the success of the Birds of a Feather relaunch. The sitcom, which originally ran from 1989-1998, was relaunched to huge ratings following a highly successful theatre tour that reunited the original cast. It's hard to think that this success wasn't in the minds of Bill Kenwright and Eric Chappell when they decided to try the revival treatment on Duty Free, the Spain-set sitcom that ran from 1984-1986. They were, admittedly, going to be facing a tougher battle than the Birds team had done, with Duty Free not only being further in the past in people's minds, but having had a much shorter run, of only three series. It's not a show that lives as long in collective memory as some of its contemporaries, but it still earned huge ratings in its time that might have suggested there was a market for revival - and whilst Birds of a Feather has perhaps been the most successful stage revival of a sitcom in recent years, it's by no means the only one. Can Duty Free, then, manage to use nostalgia to its advantage and leave the audience wishing it had never gone away?
On the strength of the promotional material for this show, I was dubious. The poster was a work of such abominable photoshopping it was hard to believe it was being used as a serious piece of promotion. With 2014 marking 30 years since the first series of the show, you might have also thought more could have been made of the anniversary. Still, I was prepared to forgive poor publicity and settled myself in for an evening of slightly corny jokes but some fun repartee between characters and a few nice nods to the 1980s.
What I got, however, was something altogether more curious. The original sitcom traded on the relationships and tensions between the two couples of holiday makers - northern Amy (Gwen Taylor) and David (Keith Barron) and southerners Linda (originally played by Joanna van Gyseghem) and Robert (Neil Stacy). Class, infidelity, politics and the idea of 'fun in the sun' were part of its appeal. This revival, however, removes all but the 'infidelity' - and even that is done in a fairly ham-fisted manner. The play starts with the reconciliation of Linda and David, looking to rekindle their old affair some thirty years on - we are led to believe they hadn't seen each other since the series ended, but it is unclear how they became re-acquainted with one another or chose to meet again. I can only assume they've been preserved in aspic since the mid-80s as there is no reference to anything that has happened to any of the characters in the intervening years.
Indeed, were it not for the fact that David, Amy and Robert have all aged thirty years (and Linda significantly less - whereas the others are played by the original cast, all in their mid-seventies, she is played by 60 year old Carol Royle, and though she does an admirable job at taking on van Gyseghem's part, the age difference is quite noticeable - and there is no real chemistry between her Linda and Barron's David), you could believe this stage show was set in the past. Only two very brief uses of mobile phones allude to the twenty-first century.
What Birds of a Feather got right was precisely what Duty Free gets wrong. It acknowledged that its characters were not only older, but they lived in a different era, and its nods to Twitter, Fifty Shades, pound shops and the coalition government may have been painted with broad brushstrokes but they at least allowed the audience to believe the characters had lived through the same years as them. If anything, the stage show of Duty Free harks back not to the 80s, but to a much earlier time. This is only made worse when our couples' Spanish revisit is repeatedly interrupted by the 'younger' couple of honeymooners, aged 40-ish (presumably to remind us of our central quartet in the original series, who were in their forties) but act as if they are particularly naïve teenagers who would have seemed old-fashioned in the 1950s: they have never lived together before marriage, seem sexually inexperienced, speak in an incredibly archaic tone, the man drinks a pint whilst the woman turns her nose up at it, they wear very dated clothing and neither of them reference anything remotely resembling the latter 20th century, never mind the twenty-first.
The younger couple are not only incredibly badly written - a shame, as actors Maxine Gregory and James Barron do what they can to infuse energy into proceedings - they serve no real useful purpose. Perhaps if we'd seen two forty-something couples (probably not newlyweds) we could have had the older couples see in them something of their past selves. Or perhaps extra characters could have been jettisoned altogether to allow the audience to simply have a nostalgic evening in the company of old friends.
At times, this almost comes close to happening. Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron get to play off against each other and relive some of their fractious chemistry from the sitcom, trading barbs as they did back then. Some of the lines are very funny, and some of the jokes, whilst incredibly broad, get a decent amount of laughter. The problem is not with the quality of the jokes, the problem is the lack of them. There is too much dialogue with no real purpose - it isn't funny, it doesn't really tell a story, and everything is far too slow. In particular the visual comedy is poorly directed and doesn't raise a laugh. The play adopts many of the tropes of farce (missed connections, mistaken identities etc) but has none of the pace - I think of recent productions of One Man, Two Guv'nors and Boeing Boeing - neither used sophisticated humour, but both fizzed with energy and sparkle because the pace never dropped and the scripts were edited to make sure they contained joke after joke.
Most unforgiveable of all, however, is that our central quartet have one solitary scene together of less than five minutes. Them continually missing each other (which is pretty much the plot) could have sustained the first scene - the first act at a push if there were enough gags to warrant it - but not the majority of the play. Where was the repartee? Where were the nods to the past? Even easy jokes about the quality of life in the 1980s vs today would have helped set the scene (the best jokes were those that related to ageing although these were mainly about physical ageing rather than, say, use of technology). Spain plays next to no part in this production (beyond the lovely set and gorgeous lighting that helps establish both summer and the time of day - although the set is perhaps too lovely to be the run-down hotel we're meant to believe it is) - it may as well have been set in Clacton for all the resonance it has.
I really wanted this play to be, if nothing else, a daft romp with some silly jokes and a dollop of nostalgia. I didn't expect it to tick all my boxes - I watched the show in the 80s, but I was a kid, not the same age as the characters, and it was clear from the audience that these were largely people who were either their peers or slightly younger - but I expected it to treat its audience with a bit more respect and to acknowledge the passage of time, not simply in the characters' dodgy knees but in other aspects of their lives. I rewatched some old clips of the show - whilst they weren't the height of sophistication, they were sharper, funnier and much, much faster than this. I feel for the cast - they are doing their best with material that needed an awful lot of work. Whilst it's not without some humour, there should be an awful lot more.
The Last of the Duty Free is at the Lyceum, Sheffield until June 21 and continues its national tour in Eastbourne later this month.