It’s fast approaching half a century since Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple premiered on Broadway, racking up close to 1,000 performances, and spawning both a television series and an iconic film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
For Welsh actor-director Guy Masterson, the play has lost none of its relevance in the interim. ‘The humour of two mismatched friends trying to live together is as universal as ever,’ he comments, in a break between rehearsals for a new production of the play opening on October 17 in the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey.
‘In fact I’m doing it at the moment!’ he adds, laughing. ‘With my assistant director David Calvitto. We’ve known each other for 15 years now, but we’ve never lived together. It’s fascinating. It’s feeding into rehearsals already…’
Felix and Oscar, the ‘odd couple’ of the play’s title, are both refugees from failed marriages, a situation exponentially more prevalent nowadays that it was in 1960s America, Simon’s original setting.
That is one of the reasons, says Masterson, why The Odd Couple, though outrageously funny, is by no means an out-and-out comedy. He sees serious underlying elements in the play, more so now than when he staged it for the first time seven years ago.
‘I directed it before in Edinburgh, with a cast of comedians,’ he explains, ‘and I didn’t have the time to go right into the nitty-gritty of the relationships between Felix, Oscar and their friends. What made the play sing on that occasion was that I was dealing with people with perfect comic timing.
‘Playing Oscar and Felix I had Bill Bailey and Alan Davies,’ Masterson remembers. ‘They’d been friends for many years, so they were able to bring their natural friendship to that relationship. I didn’t have to work on it.
‘I don’t know Marty Maguire very well at all,’ he says, referring to the Belfast actor playing Felix to Masterson’s Oscar in the Theatre at the Mill production. ‘He’s a wonderful actor, but we have to find a depth of understanding and friendship there to really make the Oscar-Felix scenes work.’
Mention of Marty Maguire (above left) brings Masterson to what he regards as one of the key features of his Newtownabbey staging of The Odd Couple – what he calls ‘a strong “Made in Belfast” feel’, with local actors featuring prominently in the production.
‘I wanted to work with local actors. It feels right in terms of what they’re trying to do at the Theatre at the Mill. They want to create a place where in-house productions can be made, with a reputation for good, high-quality local drama using local professionals.’
Appearing with Maguire in the cast will, as a consequence, be the likes of Paddy Jenkins, Nuala McKeever and Clare Connor, familiar faces to Northern Irish theatre and television audiences.
They will all be using the American accents of Simon’s original Manhattan setting, something Masterson argues comes more naturally to Ulster actors than it does to a Welshman. ‘You’ve already got the hard ‘”r”’, he laughs, mimicking the Belfast vernacular. ‘And your cadences are very similar to American. It’s harder for me!’
Masterson’s decision to double-task in his new production of The Odd Couple, both directing the show and starring, did not come easily. ‘I was reluctant at first,’ he says. ‘Because I don’t normally like being in plays that I direct.
‘But I had the chance as an actor to play one of the great comedy roles. And the condition was that I had my dear friend David Calvitto, who’s directed me before, as my assistant director. So I’ve got his outside eye, and I trust that implicitly.’
Masterson is an enormous admirer of Neil Simon’s writing, its tooled precision and what he terms its ‘brilliant comedic structures'. And he is clearly delighted that the longer period of rehearsal available in Newtownabbey is enabling him to realise the finer details of The Odd Couple, its linguistic subtleties and deftly textured narrative.
‘It’s very interesting working now with a cast of actors,’ Masterson comments, ‘to work the text exactly as written, to put those ellipses in. There’s not a comma out of place in Simon’s work, it’s very, very tight.
‘That is one of the big things that I’m able to work on here, that I was unable to work on with the production in Edinburgh, because I only had the comedians for very, very short periods of time. And then I’d get them dancing off for their own gigs at four o’clock in the afternoon!’
Masterson is a widely travelled, widely fêted director, winner of multiple awards and plaudits, most recently for Morecambe, his smash-hit West End show based on the life of comedian Eric Morecambe, which lifted the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment.
Masterson is nonetheless delighted to be back in the Theatre at the Mill, where he has performed before. ‘I was honoured to be invited to direct here,’ he says. ‘I love the theatre, it’s just a beautiful new space. I’ve been here three or four times with my plays. I adore the staff, and I just love coming back.’
This time round Masterson is, in The Odd Couple, bringing with him a play he clearly regards as a great (rather than merely good) one, by a playwright he is happy to mention in the same breath as pillars of 20th century theatre such as David Mamet and Harold Pinter. ‘Neil Simon is a giant,’ states Masterson, unequivocally. ‘No one writes comedy like Simon. He doesn’t have his reputation for no reason.’
The Odd Couple is also, Masterson argues, very much a play for our grimly recession-laden times, full of laughter, and emphasising the enduring human values which see us through periods of upheaval and adversity.
‘If there is a message,’ says Masterson, ‘it’s about friendship. Can a deep friendship survive intimacy beyond the norm? The joy of a great classic text is that it can be revisited time and time again and still work.
‘And to have access to a great play locally, with a great cast, it’s a great thing to do. It will cheer people up, and they will never forget seeing this play live. It’s a piece of art, and art will never stop working.’
The Odd Couple runs at the Theatre at the Mill from October 17 - 27.