“Barefoot in the Park” At the Woodbin Theatre

Neil Simon is arguably one of the most popular playwrights of all time. His resume boasts some of the most beloved and frequently staged plays ever to grace the off-Broadway stage: “The Odd Couple”, “Lost in Yonkers”, “Sweet Charity”, Rumors”, “Little Me”, “The Good Doctor”, “The Goodbye Girl”, the list goes on and on. In fact, the only list longer are the names of acting legends who cut their teeth performing his plays, and often returned for the film adaptations. In the case of the immortal, hilarious and effortlessly relatable “Barefoot in the Park”, there are luminaries like Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Myrna Loy, Amanda Peet, Maureen Lipman, Patrick Wilson and, in the 1967 film, the formidable Jane Fonda.  Needless to say, the cast picked by Kelly Clifford for the play’s run at the Woodbin Theatre in Geelong had some mighty shoes to fill. Just how difficult a play we have here is evident at any of the shows put on in Melbourne – as a Lab actor, I’ve seen scenes performed hundreds of times (and done them myself), as well as going to shows – all of which have been drastically inferior to Simon’s writing. I was nervous for Clifford. I did not expect a little community theatre in Geelong to outdo any venue or cast I’ve thus far seen in Melbourne. But I was wrong.

The treat we were in for was evident from the moment we entered the theatre; set design was wonderful. Enter Corie and Paul Bratter.

Chemistry that comes alive and electrifies the audience at every cheeky glimmer and cutting line. Even their fights are so charged by passion that the audience couldn’t help but be taken up by it. Kelly Clifford clearly understands actors, and the script – to kindle such an explosive formula in such an obviously restrictive rehearsal period is impossible. It’s all in her casting choices, and that shows a keen and perceptive instinct far surpassing many.

As Corie, Georgia Chara is able to get away with anything with her cheeky glint and idiosyncratic mannerisms. Lucky enough to call her a friend, I can testify that this is as close to the experience of actually knowing Chara that I’ve ever seen on stage; it is her most intimate and personal performance by far.

Ian Nash-Gilchrist, in the role of Paul, lets himself be as exasperated, baffled and utterly charmed as he must be, being thrust on a tiny stage in such an intimate role with such a live-wire. Paul Bratter is a set of eyes through which the audience may perceive of Corie, and Nash-Gilchrist is expertly subtle and intimate enough for us to connect to.

But the casting expertise exceeds Corie and Paul here – Robyn Birrell, in the role of Corie’s Mother Ethel Banks, shares a relationship with Chara that rings subtly and irritatingly true, while David MacKay’s Victor Velasco compliments her perfectly, although he could have spent a little more time amongst the likes of Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre to get that accent down…but, who’d have thought he’d get a reviewer so acutely versed in the Hungarian syntax as I?

Clifford and co have pulled off a fun, breezy rendition of a Simon classic, as refreshing as walking barefoot in the park.

Review by Max Davine for Good Vibes Media 

Images by Sandy Gray

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