Maureen Lipman in Daytona. Pic: Manuel Harlan

Theatre Review: Daytona

10th September 2013

Jill Glenn reviews 'Daytona' at the Watford Palace Theatre

Written by Oliver Cotton; directed by David Grindley

The blandness of the 'Daytona' set – the shabby interior of a New York apartment in 1986 – reflects the blandness at the heart of its inhabitants' lives. Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer) are elderly European Jewish Americans, married for nearly 50 years: their relationship is perfectly satisfactory, but the daily routine is humdrum, enlivened only by a shared fondness for competitive ballroom dancing. They waltz on at the beginning, and within minutes we can see that they're not unhappy, but that life holds no surprises...

...so a knock at the door (following a silent phone call) clearly presages a major disruption. Elli has, by this point, been dispatched to her sister's where she remains for all of Act One, leaving the stage free for a confrontation between Joe and the brother he hasn't seen for over 30 years – the brother who disappeared with the money, leaving a business in ruins and changing the trajectory of Joe's life as well as his own. It's not a happy reunion, for the brothers or the audience. While the story that Billy (John Bowe) has come back to tell is a fascinating one, opening up some big questions about the interaction of past and present, about personal responsibility and public morality, the method of telling is necessarily static: Billy talks and rants, prompted by the occasional question from Joe, as he works up to the big revelation – which, for the sake of those yet to see it either here in Watford or on the rest of its nationwide tour, I won't spoil. It doesn't give away too much, however, to say that it deals with what Joe calls "that embarrassing European nightmare", although the promise of the first half ebbs away in the second, where, instead of a dramatic deepening, the story shifts on its axis. Via another clunky plot device, Joe is spirited away for much of Act Two, leaving Elli and Billy to chip away at each other and a version of the past that is more domestic and intimate. And predictable.

'Daytona' feels like a play that needed another couple of rewrites before it made it to the stage, but this is as good a production as you could get from some unpromising material. Lipman is excellent, sharply in command of the emotions of the part; I was particularly moved by the intensification of her Germanic accent at a point of great distress. Bowe, I thought, rather overacted, especially in the early part of Act One; it may have felt in character for him (Billy has just done something astonishing) but the intensity of his delivery was wearing. Shearer's part was perhaps the least rewarding, but he inhabited it well. The three made a strong team.

'Daytona' is amusing at times, deals with some big themes, and has the occasional frisson of real feeling. Sadly, though, despite the massive issues it purports to address, that blandness in the set and the marriage pervades the evening: it is, overall, just a little bit dull...

'Daytona' continues at Watford Palace Theatre (01923 225671) until 14 September

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