Daytona (Theatre Royal, Brighton, Monday 8th – Saturday 13th September)

Should the past remain history or should embers of love or revenge be rekindled? It’s the question that lies at the heart of Oliver Cotton’s interesting and sometimes extremely moving drama Daytona, fresh from the West End and about to stop off at Brighton as part of a tour.

It’s hard to say too much without giving away the plot twists (although other reviewers have), but the story is not that original, picking up admittedly important themes that have often been seen before. However, in the hands of the excellent cast this conventional three-hander manages to be intense, powerful, thought-provoking and occasionally very amusing.

We are introduced to Joe and Elli, a long-married Jewish couple in their 70s, living in a Brooklyn apartment in 1986, with a shared passion for ballroom dancing. They are clearly survivors, and if there are cracks in their relationship one senses an underlying determination to keep their love alive.

Into this near domestic bliss, and completely out of the blue, comes Billy, Joe’s brother, not seen for 30 years after a falling out. He has a story to tell with bitter roots in the past – and later there’s an equally sour revelation which could all too easily destroy relationships.

As it happens there is a feeling that neither of the two major plot turns are resolved satisfactorily, but perhaps they don’t need to be: maybe the personal impact they have on the individuals is more significant than any need to know the absolute truth or consequence.

The cast are veterans in the nicest possible sense of the word: they work superbly together, bring the characters and the situation to life, and create an atmosphere that is at turns chilly, warm, and tense in this two-hour play, directed with subtlety and care by David Grindley.

As the play’s writer Oliver Cotton makes the most of Billy, with some extraordinary lengthy speeches that are never less than compelling. The downside and moral dilemmas of the two major situations at the centre of the play are not fully explored, but we sense Billy must learn how to face those issues of cruel disappointment himself. Cotton didn’t play this role when the play was first staged at the Park Theatre in North London in 2013, but now he relishes the part, playing it with raw energy.

It is difficult to pull one’s eyes away from Harry Shearer as he listens to some of the speeches directed at him as Joe. You can read every moment of long-buried pain, share every hurt and betrayal in his expressions and when anger breaks through to the surface it is all the more shocking. If anything he is underused in a role which is frequently a pair of ears for the other characters’ speeches.

Maureen Lipman is just as strong as Elli, nursing her own secret, giving a performance that manages to be humorous while exposing inner depths of emotional intensity. If we feel she has sadly settled for second best in her life, then her charged performance helps us understand why.

This play might shy away from delivering the sort of emotional knockout blow that it could do, but is nonetheless a compelling exploration of how the need for revenge, honesty, and living for the day affects the lives of the three characters and deserves to be seen for the cracking performances alone.

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