Closet opens on family secrets

Blowing away secrets of the past: Maureen Lipman as Ellie and John Bowe as Billy.

Pictures: Alastair Muir


Birmingham Rep


ELLIE and accountant husband Joe are a retired Jewish couple in New York whose consuming interest is ballroom dancing.

Life is comfortable and gentle paced, with the usual matrimonial bickering wrapped around waltzes and quicksteps - until Billy arrives. Billy is the brother who no one has seen for 30 years and brings with him not just one but two life changing secrets; the first, the cause of his unexpected visit, the second, the reason for his unexplained departure.

Oliver Cotton's three hander is wordy, perhapReview of Daytona at Birmingham Wes too much so, with Billy relating his stories in what appears to be the minutest detail.

In act one after setting the scene between our happy couple we have the clash between Billy and his brother Joe.

The second act it is, in ballroom terms, an excuse me as Elli and Billy clash before all three come face to face with their relationships as we approach the final curtain.

It is all words with long narrative descriptions which in lesser hands would have become tedious but this was a cast that could probably have made a reading of the Road Traffic Act  tolerable.

John Bowe gives a performance it is a privilege to watch as Billy, the estranged brother, who arrives late at night in the dead of winter in an ill fitting suit, with no socks and wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt carrying enough Chinese take-way for a formation dancing team.

A sure case of care in the community if such a thing exists in Brooklyn, but as his story unfolds so does his sanity – we discover the family eccentric has as many marbles as the rest, he just plays the game differently and we are left to question what we would have done in his shoes – with no socks of course – or at least challenged to understand what he has done.

Joe and Elli, Harry Shearer and Maureen Lipman

More explanation would perhaps be too much of a spoiler but Billy arrives having either done the best - or the worst thing in his life while on his regular winter holiday with his wife in Florida.

He re-enters the world of Ellie and Joe with Maureen Lipman superb as the Jewish housewife, already, with common sense laced with a side order of sarcasm and occasional wit, in dealing with the now two men in her life. Bit Billy has opened up old wounds and her pain and emotion as the return forces her to confront her own past are palpable.

Harry Shearer gives us a slightly hen-pecked and careworn Joe, who “dances like a madman” if he misses out on sleep.

Standing up to Elli is nigh impossible for him, but brother Billy? That is a challenge he is happy to face as he provides shelter with an unsympathetic ear, perhaps because he already knows Billy's secret of 30 years ago.

Shearer incidentally is perhaps best known for his voices in The Simpsons where he is Mr Burns, Smithers and Ned Flanders, while his collaboration with Chrisopher Guest saw him as Derek Smalls, the bassist in rock send-up Spinal Tap, and Mark Shubb in the folk mockumentary The Mighty of Wind.

The trio weave a somewhat long-winded story into something which is not only believable but interesting with twists and nuances along the way.

We have Joe with the accountants ordered mind, reliable and dull, while Billy is compulsive, exuberant and unpredictable and then Elli, strong on the outside but with a past weakness which still gnaws at her.

David Grinley has kept up a good pace on a nice 1980s set from Ben Stones although there does seem to be a dispute about the date having been told we are talking about 40 years after the end of the war in one breath and then we are told that it is 1996 in the next.

Billy talked for a long time in Act 1 but surely not 10 years.

Sound was a bit of a problem at the start but the balance was quickly sorted to settle down into an absorbing evening enjoying some fine acting from a top-notch cast. To 26-10-13.

Roger Clarke


Home Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre