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15 May 2017

The Odd Couple (2012): One of 20th Century Theatre's enduring crowd-pleasers.

𝕺ne of the more successful productions I was involved in, as far as consistently high bums to seats ratio was The Odd Couple in 2012. It was directed by Mary Lindsay, who I had worked with previously during the rehearsed reading for Sitting Up for Michael. She was so perfect in the role of Doris, it tore me up that she was about twenty years too young for the part when it came to staging. 

It actually worked out well serendipitously, given that the two productions overlapped, but that didn't stop me from auditioning. I was rehearsing Sitting Up for Michael in the Belfast RAF Association building by day, then performing The Odd Couple in the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival by night - like a theatrical Bruce Wayne, but with a smaller costume budget.

It was a great help being part of the festival - there's an audience ready-made, and it starred Joe Lindsay who is a recognisable TV personality and DJ, but the thing that really brought the audiences was the play itself. The Odd Couple has just hit such a gigantic nerve with audiences for it's wit, humour and universal relatability.

Of course, the movie adaptation, followed by the sitcom, helped forge the play's place in the popular mindset, but it was the original play that established the characters that audiences fell in love with. Two divorcees sharing an apartment - it's a set up so simple, it seems incredible that it hadn't been done before, one an avuncular neat-freak, the other a lover of life, always on the look out for women.

Played by Morgan Hearst in our production, Felix is the uptight one, who chastises the slovenly Oscar during a heated argument for not identifying a linguini as it slides down a wall. And Joe Lindsay as Oscar, met Morgan's New England pedant with a drawling Brooklyn bozo. And of course the enduring image of the Odd Couple, is their propensity to behave like a married couple.
Oscar Madison: I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. "We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!
And the script is peppered with brilliant humour throughout - genuinely hilarious, laugh out loud moments straight off the page. It's no wonder the play was adapted into a movie and then a sitcom - the script and the set up was tailor-made for the fledgling art form.
Oscar Madison: Hey wait a minute, wait a minute, the pot's shy. Who didn't put in a quarter?  
Murray: You didn't. 
Oscar Madison: You got a big mouth, Murray. Just for that, lend me twenty dollars. 
Murray: I just loaned you twenty dollars. Borrow from somebody else, I keep winning my own money back. 
Roy: You owe everybody in the game. If you don't have it, you shouldn't play. 
Oscar Madison: All right, I'm through being a nice guy, you owe me six dollars apiece for the buffet! 
Vinnie: What Buffet? [they all chime in] 
Speed: What buffet? Hot beer and two sandwiches left over from when you went to high school. 
Oscar Madison: What do you want at a poker game, a tomato surprise? Murray, lend me twenty dollars or I'll call your wife and tell her you're in Central Park wearing a dress.
But the play is a lot deeper than just a tennis match of one-liners. Oscar's divorce has him in pretty dire financial straits, and Felix's newfound singledom has him contemplating suicide throughout the play. As America emerged from the roaring fifties with a generation starting to poke holes in the nuclear family aesthetic, seeing the casualties of divorce would have been hugely refreshing to audiences.

Walter Matthau made the part of Oscar his own, cementing the portrayal from the play's premier in 1965, and carrying it through to the cinema adaptation in 1968, forging one of American cinema's great partnerships with Jack Lemmon. They even carried the role through to a sequel in 1998 - a thirty-three year portrayal of a character is some achievement for an actor.


I played one of the card buddies, along with Ruadhri Ward, Christian Jackson and Griffin Madill (in his stage debut - he still recalls his fear of live performance!), and the women who Felix and Oscar were wooing were played by Monine Dargin and Emma McErlean. It was a great cast to be part of - everyone supporting each other to bring the classic to the stage, and justify it's stature. And Mary Lindsay was a fantastic director, and has recently gone on to great things with Shannon Yee's Reassembled (Slightly Askew) in London.
I thought it would be unhelpful to see the film before I performed it because I thought it would stifle my portrayal of the character, but experience and hindsight tell me I was wrong. It turned out I had a pretty close representation of the character as the film, as far as I remember, although I was largely concentrating on ...Michael, such that until someone brought up this production recently, I hadn't actually thought of it in years! (A co-star in my recent production of Playboy of the Western World had seen it because he was a good friend of Joe's.)

Perhaps the best indication of the enduring good will the play has with audiences is the need for unimaginative marketers to proclaim their latest buddy movie/sitcom as 'the new Odd Couple.' This was parodied memorably in The Simpsons, when Troy McClure, the washed up actor is promoting his new sitcom:
Troy McClure: I play Jack Handle a retired cop who shares an apartment with a retired criminal. We're the original Odd Couple.