An odd couple testing the limits of friendship

Colette Sheridan hears that Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys is about reaching an age where you feel you’re no longer wanted

CORK theatrical stalwart, Michael Twomey, will take to the stage of the Everyman Palace Theatre playing one half of a legendary vaudevillian double act in Neil Simon’s comedy, The Sunshine Boys, on January 11. The fictional duo, Willie Clark (played by Twomey) and Al Lewis (David Coon), are retired but are persuaded to reunite for a TV special on the history of comedy. Unlike the comedy act, Cha and Miah, for which Twomey, along with Frank Duggan, is famous, Clark and Lewis have come to hate each other and didn’t even communicate with each other off stage in the final year of their act.

Simon is one of Twomey’s favourite playwrights and is also much loved by director, Pat Talbot. “I love Neil Simon’s humour with its Jewish idiom, which adds greatly to the fun,” says Twomey. “I would say that Neil Simon is one of the most popular of all the American playwrights. He wrote The Sunshine Boys in 1972. He’s best known for The Odd Couple. I’d argue that this play is even funnier than The Odd Couple.”

Clark and Lewis are an odd couple in their own right. Their longevity was inspired by Smith and Dale who, unlike their theatrical counterparts, were lifelong friends. The undercurrent of backstage hostility between the pair was inspired by the team of Gallagher and Shean, who were professionally successful but didn’t get on off stage.

Twomey’s character is “an unforgiving cantankerous guy who was played in the first film version of the play by Walter Matthau. The play is set in the early 1970s. It’s about what happens when the duo reunite after ten years. They broke up under very unfriendly circumstances. Clark’s nephew, Ben, who’s a theatrical agent, is the one trying to get the two to perform together — and it proves to be an impossible task”.

Twomey says that the play is really a nostalgic tribute to the old vaudeville performers. “In the play, vaudeville has been replaced by television and there is a whole new approach to comedy. The comedy duo is being passed by. Lewis saw the end of vaudeville coming and walked out on the act to become a stockbroker. Clark never forgave him for doing that. He tried to carry on as an actor, looking for jobs and commercials. Both men are getting very old, with Clark’s memory going. But he is entrenched in his ways.”

“A laugh a line” is how Twomey describes this play. Clark wasn’t ready for retirement and is resentful towards Lewis for making him effectively redundant. While Lewis is comfortable, life is difficult for his former acting partner. Clark’s wife is dead and he doesn’t have a family.

As a senior actor himself, Twomey, aged 78, admits that remembering his lines can be challenging. “My short term memory is terrific. I can learn a page of script and perform it immediately. But two days later, it’s gone.” He says that if there is a message in The Sunshine Boys, it’s about reaching an age “where you feel you’re no longer wanted”.

Twomey is still in demand as a director and, occasionally, as an actor. “Theatre is a great for keeping your mind active. I couldn’t stay sitting on a chair all day. I have to be out doing something and theatre has always been a great outlet for me. It isn’t often that I get the chance to act.”

The role of Clark is demanding. “I’m on stage from beginning to end. As well as being mentally demanding, the play is physically demanding. Pat is working us very hard but we’re having plenty of laughs too.”

Twomey, who started his acting career with the Cork Shakespearean Company, always held on to his day job in the insurance business. “I would have been tempted a long time ago to break away from the steady job but I had married and when the kids came, I felt responsible. I was a coward. I was afraid to take the risk. In my time, I saw so many people leaving Cork and making good, such as Donal Farmer and Bobby Carlyle. I wondered if I could do it. But I was afraid to give up the salary cheque every week and my house had to be paid for. I wouldn’t have had the strength to give up my job.”

But Twomey considers himself to have the best of both worlds. “The thing about Cork is that it’s a tiny pool and you can be a medium sized fish here. But if you go to Dublin, you’re a very tiny fish in a very big pool.”

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