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Canberra Today 22°/30° | Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Weird affairs cool the ardour of hot-to-trot Barney

Red-hot lover Barney, played by Canberra comedian David Cannell, with from left, Victoria Tyrrell Dixon as Elaine, Stephanie Bailey as  Bobbi and  Janie Lawson as Jeanette. Photo: Olivia Wenholz

Canberra Repertory is kicking off its 2024 season with what it’s betting will be a surefire hit – Neil Simon’s comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

Considered by director of the show Anne Somes to be “one of the funniest scripts written about the late 1960s journey through the sexual revolution”, the play is bound to hit the spot with Rep patrons of a certain age. 

Briefly, suburban fish restaurant owner Barney, played by Canberra comedian David Cannell, has been married for 23 years to his childhood sweetheart and it seems to him that life is passing him by, so he  embarks on a series of afternoon extramarital affairs.

But, Somes tells me, he makes some rather weird choices. 

The first of those is that all of his extramarital forays take place in the apartment of his mum, who works for the Mount Sinai Hospital so is not home in the afternoons between 2pm and 5pm. Barney’s liaisons have to tick a certain timeframe and no, Somes says, “he never goes overtime, that couldn’t happen”.

Making it all the more uncomfortable, his mother’s apartment is decorated in the most fastidious 1930s taste, so, taking no chances, Barney brings the drinks and the glasses, hoping to leave no trace of the afternoon’s activities. 

Because of that, much of the humour will be visual and set designer Cate Clelland is relishing the furnishing challenges along with those of creating what Somes calls “a very highly utilised set”, while leaving plenty of playing space.

Barney is on stage for the whole time, making the central role a huge undertaking for Cannell as the sole male in what otherwise looks very much like three discrete two-handers, with a different woman in each. 

A more modern take was seen in a Chinese adaptation during 2005 and 2006, when actress Tao Hong played all three women to her husband, Xu Zheng, in what proved to be a smash hit.

Rep will not go that way, with Victoria Tyrrell Dixon playing Elaine, Stephanie Bailey, Bobbi, and Janie Lawson, Jeanette.

Each role is a gift.

First there’s the wise-cracking Elaine, a hard-to-manage seductress who smokes and drinks – not good in mum’s apartment. She used to go into Barney’s restaurant because she loves fish.

Next is Bobbi, a new-age, pot-smoking, aspiring actress.

Finally there’s Jeanette, Barney’s wife’s best friend and a neurotic moralist on the brink of despair.

Small wonder then that, as Somes lets slip, none of the affairs is ever consummated.

“But everything is set up for a typical Neil Simon comedy in the most engaging way… and there’s plenty of physical humour, too,” she says.

She’s pretty sure it will hit the spot: “I think this is a great show for a Rep audience, but also one which will appeal to a wider demographic, people who may not be knowledgeable about Neil Simon.

“It’s about someone trying to open up his life within the context of women coming out and asserting themselves.”

As with all good comedy, there’s a ludicrous premise, as Barney’s rosy view of what he imagines an extra-marital affair should be like comes up against reality.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Canberra Repertory Theatre, Acton, February 22 (preview) to March 9.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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