Legendary writer Neil Simon had a long list of stage and screen hits to his name, but The Odd Couple remains one of his most famous, with the iconic pairing of Jack Lemmon as fussy Felix and Walter Matthau as slob Oscar making for a memorable and much-loved movie.
Now this quintessential slice of New York wit and humour is coming to the Everyman in Cork, but in a version that comes with a twist. It will probably come as a surprise to many that Simon actually wrote three versions of The Odd Couple, the original, another featuring a man and a woman, and a third featuring two women.
It is this latter version, which debuted on Broadway in 1985, that will be shown at the Everyman.
It is based on the same storyline and same lead characters, now called Florence Ungar and Olive Madison, the central poker game replaced by Trivial Pursuit, and their friends becoming their girlfriends.
Thankfully, all is far from odd when I meet Nichola MacEvilly and Gillian McCarthy, who are playing Florence and Olive, respectively.
They have just emerged from a particularly physical rehearsal, but they have an easy camaraderie which is probably what is required when your characters are portraying a bickering couple on stage.
“We’ve been told we have loads of chemistry,” laughs Gillian.
“It was a risk, because we hadn’t met before we were cast. But Conor [Hanratty, the director] had a good idea of what he wanted and he just knew. Luckily it worked out. We are having a good time,” says Nichola.
“Yes, it has been really good fun. It is lovely to do a comedy,” adds Gillian.
While there are plenty of laughs to be had in performing comedy, it also comes with challenges, says Nichola. “There is a rhythm to it, and there is a skill in that, the audience is almost like another character in the play, they come in and they are part of it.”
Gillian agrees: “That’s the funny thing about comedy. You might think it’s easy because it’s all in the script.
"It is, to a degree, but there is a little bit of a knack to it. It can be different every night, as so much depends on the audience.
You just tell the story, do it honestly, stay in the moment and if there is a reaction, great.
While the play is set in the 1980s, Simon’s gifted rendering means the wit and humour are very much timeless.
“There is still a lovely freshness to the comedy,” says Gillian.
“They’ve both been married for a good stretch of time, and they are now together, that is the comedy, but equally it is the truth of it, the heartbreak and all of that.”
Nichola adds: “We have beats to hit and the script is written a certain way — set-up, set-up, punchline — but at the same time you want to make the characters real.”
The Sligo-born actor says she wasn’t tempted to watch the movie in preparation for the role.
“I decided not to. I just got on with it, read the script and got what I thought Florence Unger might be like in my head… I need everything to be my own. I did look at some photos online. I like that all I know about the story is the female point of view for now.”
While Gillian also avoided watching the movie, she says some of her research led her down another rabbit hole.
“You go with what is there, but I did a little bit of Googling before I auditioned for the part and I discovered there was a good bit of the TV series on YouTube,” says the Dublin native.
The television version was equally acclaimed for the performances of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as Felix and Oscar, respectively.
It was so good. It was a blast of nostalgia because I used to watch it with my dad when I was a child and we laughed so much. It was so brilliant and funny.
"So I watched some of that, just for my own enjoyment.”
Gillian turned to another iconic New York-based television show when it came to nailing down the accent for her character Olive.
“I have gone back and watched Cagney and Lacey to get the accent, and also the camaraderie between the two women. It is good for my ear and you take little bits.
"My accent is probably more Mary-Beth [Lacey] than Christine [Cagney],” she laughs.
Nichola says she found her roleas the neurotic and pernicketyFlorence was a little closer to home.
“We’ve had some funny moments in rehearsal because I realise there are far more similarities between me and Florence Unger than I had originally thought,” she says.
“We’ve had some laughs, I might be rearranging something in the rehearsal room, and the rest of them are going, ‘Oh my God, you’re like Florence’. I try to harness that and realise that the script is all there for the taking, use it as your bible, the answers are there.”
While Gillian’s character Olive is the supposed slob of the relationship, she says she is trying to give some more nuance to the role.
“Obviously, that’s the gig, they are opposites but I didn’t want to make her too sloppy. She is able to put herself together, get herself out to work, she looks grand, but when she gets home, she doesn’t really give a shit.
She’ll open a cupboard and a mountain of stuff will fall out. She is sloppy but she is able, pragmatic, witty, and fast. Conor was saying it would be cool if you had an app — are you an Olive or are you a Florence — because I think we all have a bit of Olive and Florence in us…I can be a bit OCD at home but I like to kick back as well.
And while it is a female-centred story, the actors say the story is a universal one that will appeal to all.
“I think it will appeal to men as much as a play with lots of men in it appeals to women,” says Nichola. “I don’t think we are saying anything too large or global, it is actually a play about friendships.”
Gillian agrees: “While it is fun to see the premise turned on its head, it will appeal to all in the same way the original would have.”
The Odd Couple is at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork from Tuesday, July 16 to Saturday, August 17, 7.30pm (excluding Sunday/Monday); tickets €33, €30, and €26 (opening week); everymancork.com