"It looks like a Noël Coward play!" remarks Olive Madison on returning to see how Florence Ungar has prettied up the apartment for a double date. It certainly looks like the Noël Coward play only recently ended on the same Apollo Theatre stage: one big-name female pairing is replaced by another, as the Misses Kendal and De La Tour in Fallen Angels are succeeded by Jenny Seagrove and Paula Wilcox in The Female Odd Couple, Neil Simon's gender-swapping 1980s rewrite of his greatest hit.
In many ways this version works more smoothly than the original, as Felix and Oscar become finicky, neurotic Flo moving in post-separation with slobbish news editor Olly. Much of the banter in the women's Trivial Pursuit evenings is at least the equal of that in their male counterparts' poker school, and the "buddy" aspect of the plot seems warm rather than contrived, even accommodating an affirmative "go, girl!" ending of the kind which is all but mandatory in American screen dramas. Elsewhere, this very absence of whimsy flattens things out too much: the absence of the nudge-nudge gay subtext between Oscar and "housewife" Felix, for instance, leads Simon to put the matter of homosexuality briefly into the text itself, as part of the double-date conversation with a pair of Spanish brothers (formerly English sisters). Overall, this female incarnation could not have been the original version of the play: the incompatibility of two such women makes for mildly diverting curiosity rather than the plausibly outlandish quirkiness which drove its male antecedent.
Paula Wilcox's Flo fusses and frets well, and manages to combine tortured Bronx vowels with a prissiness of vocal delivery. Jenny Seagrove has some nicely gross moments, such as mopping up a spilt drink with an old sandwich, but try as she might to sprawl and even walk all over the furniture, she is simply not believable as the galumphing, pathologically untidy Olive. It's a puffer-fish performance of big gestures and big voice (at times she sounds as if she's trying to do Stanley Kowalski) whenever the script demands that Olive be Oscar, so to speak. Elijah Moshinsky's direction fails to find a way around this dramatic hiccuping whereby a softer female dynamic is regularly punctured by bursts of pretend-laddishness. But it's principally the entertainment of the moment that one looks for in any version of The Odd Couple, and Simon's play received its seal of approval long ago on that score.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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