Michael Radford's West End revival of The Seven Year Itch reminds me of nothing so much as life during my brief dalliance with Prozac: not whistles, bells and jolly chorus lines, but just that little bit brighter and easier than usual, while somehow palpably less real and less important. On Monday's first night I often had the impression that Radford's cast were acting through cotton wool: the laughs, tensions and even such bite as George Axelrod's 1952 sex comedy still retains are all cushioned from making even the slightest jolt upon impact. The director's return to theatre shows little of the understated power he brought to films such as 1984 and Il Postino.
Two women provide the main selling points of the show: two women in the same role, but only one of them appearing onstage. Daryl Hannah supplies the big-name value required by the West End's latest periodic phase of eagerness to offer its audiences famous "scalps", but over the proceedings looms the shade of Marilyn Monroe, whose career was launched by playing the unnamed Girl from the flat above "summer bachelor" Richard in the film version. Hannah's allure is fundamentally different from Monroe's, but the role of the Girl offers only so much latitude for individual flair in its particular mixture of sensuality and innocence. Despite Radford's sly move of keeping her invisible for her first two scenes (offstage in the hall and hidden by a balconyful of greenery respectively), Hannah's first entrance proper is so low-key that even the loyal press-night audience missed their chance to applaud; likewise, on her first exit there was a pause of a couple of seconds before, in a sense, her departure was noticed and the dutiful clapping began. Hannah takes so much effort not to be Monroe that she unfortunately ends up being not much of a siren at all.
The focus of the play is not the Girl but Richard, a pulp publishing editor left behind in Manhattan for the summer by his holidaying wife and son and increasingly fixated upon the younger Girl as a means of fleetingly regaining his vanished youth. Rolf Saxon's Richard fumbles and frets around the stage, alternating clumsy passes at the Girl with fantasy sequences which hold neither the eroticism nor the terror intended; however, he simply goes through the motions, rather than being driven by the self-preoccupation which is the character's engine. Anthony O'Donnell's turn as a psychiatrist author, so far from being unobtrusive, is unfussily scene-stealing, but in such bland surroundings this is like stealing candy from a baby.
In terms of plot, the play goes further than the movie – here, the couple do at least spend a single night together before Richard turns on a sixpence in the final seconds, leaving Hannah's Girl to fly back to his old life by joining his family on vacation. However, lacking either the frenzy of farce or the mordant assurance of the film version's comic register, Radford's production does nothing more than saunter along for a couple of hours and then stop.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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