Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

di and grace

Pippa Olliver as Diane and Lizzy Small as Grace. Pictures: Emily White

London Suite

Highbury Theatre Centre


A bit of an upmarket pick and mix here, providing something for everyone with three different tales from the skilled pen of Neil Simon, tales whose only link is the location, a suite in a London hotel overlooking Hyde Park.

We have the novelist with writer’s block and a mysteriously empty bank account having a friendly chat, gun in hand, with his accountant. Then there is the shopaholic widowed mother and matchmaker daughter, with its bittersweet end, and finally the actress’s love affair that never really ended finding fate bringing down the final curtain.

It is a ploy the late playwright had used in the past. Simon seemed to have had a suite tooth, so to speak, with Plaza Suite set in New York and California Suite set in Beverly Hills earlier one act play collections.

Highbury brought in three of the four plays in the suite at short notice after insurmountable production problems hit the advertised production of Travels With My Aunt and have done a remarkable job in the time frame to get them on stage at all let alone make them work quite as beautifully as they do.

billie and brian

Balancing the books: Maggie Lane's Billie has some explaining to do to Sean Mulkeen's gun-toting Brian

We open with Settling Accounts, which is perhaps the weakest of the three in terms of storyline and character development. Brian Cronin, played with an angry air by Sean Mulkeen, is a successful novelist with eight books and their subsequent films and TV adaptations to his name, and a long time writer’s block.

He is enjoying a comfortable long term resting between books when he discovers bills are not being paid and his bank account has been closed, investments cleared out and he is broke. So, he, and his gun, are having a chat with Billie Fox, played nervously by Maggie Lane, his financial advisor/accountant for the past 20 years, who comes up with excuses and ever more outlandish lies in the hope of saving her skin in a sort of mix of apology, defiance, porkies and pleading. Mulkeen has a nice touch in changing a gentle aside into a violent threat and there are some funny lines but by its very nature of confrontation and threats the characters have enmity rather than empathy.

sheryl and lauren

Happy family:Alex Hunter as mum Sheryl and Amy White as loving daughter Lauren

Empathy comes with the second play, Going Home, with Sheryl Semple and daughter from the USA on a shopping trip to London. Amy White is a loving and caring daughter, Lauren, looking out for her mother, widowed six years earlier.  Sheryl, played by Alex Hunter, is still an attractive woman, still single and is staying in the same suite where she spent her honeymoon. It’s not maudlin, merely her need to revisit a happy memory.

The pair gel well and there seems genuine affection as Lauren convinces her mother to go on a date to the National Theatre to see the latest David Mamet play with a man they met on the plane over , perhaps it should be noted, Mamet is not averse to giving his dialogue a, should we say, industrial flavour.

We never meet the man, Dennis, who is Scottish, staying in the same hotel, lives with his mother, sister and aunt on a 200 acre Scottish estate and has a veritable compendium of allergies, twitches and snorts as a reaction to stress and. remember Mamet, bad language, all relayed to Lauren in great detail in the early hours when Sheryl arrives back at the hotel after leaving Dennis in hospital . . . don’t ask. It is a gentle play, a loving daughter trying to do the best for her mother, to find her a new love, or at least a companion and a mother who dotes on her daughter and grandson, and who reveals a bittersweet secret involving a triangle of tears.

di and sidney

Lost loves remembered: Pipps Olliver as Biana and Phil Astle as Sidney

There are tears as well in the final piece coming after the break, Diane and Sidney which sees British TV megastar Diane Nichols visiting London as part of a world tour to publicise the latest series of her hit US TV show, and while she is here she is meeting up with ex-husband Sidney, in London from his home in Greece. The pair haven’t seen each other for years and Diane, a lovely performance from Pippa Olliver, is in a panic, stressed out, relying on her personal assistant Grace, played with commendable calm by Lizzy Small, to get her through . . . whatever she is panicking about.

Diane’s preparations consist of vodka and . . . well vodka, with a splash of, ok, vodka again and a request to Grace, denied, for one of those special, non-prescription pills one can purchase for cash in the less salubrious neighbourhoods.

Sidney, in the familiar guise of Phil Astle, arrives in linen jacket and slacks – living in Greece as he does with his gay lover Max, that is normal November wear, not so sensible in London, and he is feeling the cold.

Astle’s Sidney is friendly, the pair have no hard feelings, and he is on a mission to ask Diane for financial help so he can look after Max who has smoked since he was nine, and 40 years on is dying of lung cancer. The money is to give Max a comfortable end.

But that is not the end as Diane is surprised to find divorce and time has not ended her feelings for her bi-sexual ex, and he, in turn is looking out for his new love and sparing his old one from a sad finale.

The pair, incidentally, is a variation based on the characters with the same names in Visitors from London in California Suite. There Diane is nominated for an Oscar and suffers the same mood swings ranging from hope to despair with panic, frustration and anger thrown in for good measure.

As a play it is perhaps the strongest of the three with the most rounded, or perhaps more accurate, most developed characters but all three bring something to the table, out and out comedy in Settling Accounts, humour and affection in Going Home, and amid the laughs in Diane and Sidney there is an underlying pathos.

The three, inserted into the programme at short notice, were treated as three plays with three directors, Sandra Haynes, Ken Agnew and Ian Appleby on an effective set designed by Malcolm Robertshaw for a fine conclusion to the Highbury season.

Roger Clarke



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