California Suite

March 2015

Neil Simon's hilarious yet thoughtful portmanteau set of four plays, all performed in the same hotel suite in Los Angeles. Five couples from elsewhere in the USA, their marriages in different states of tension or chaos, spend time there. Lovers of Neil Simon's acerbic New York one liners will definitely not be disappointed!


Hannah - Anny Kilbourne

Bill - Dan Fields

Marvin - Bob Drury

Bunny - Marie Watsham

Millie - Chris Eilbeck

Sidney - Howard Eilbeck

Diana - Maggie Bourgein

Mort - Keith Palmer

Beth - Rose Gander

Gert - Angela Wallwork

Stu - Alan Caig

Production Team:

Director - Clare Philbrock

Asst Director - Janine Warre

Production Manager - Maggie Butt

Set Design and Construction - Eliot Wright

Costumes - Janine Warre, Jill Whitehouse, Lynn Trout

Props - The company

Lighting - Peter Tapp

Sound - John Bradley

Publicity Design - Phil Keen

Publicity - Maggie Butt, Angela Wallwork

Front of House - Avril Pattinson and company


From Rob Hole's view of California Suite:

the reactions of the Topsham audience showed that his acerbic view of marriage strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic too

American playwright Neil Simon has been married five times - so far! He puts this considerable marital experience to good use in his play California Suite [1976], this Spring's offering from the Estuary Players. Adopting a device which Noel Coward had previously used in his Suite in Three Keys [1966], Simon examines a succession of married couples all of whom happen to stay in the same hotel room. This play requires a box-set and flats, something we rarely see in an Estuary Players production, and the construction team are to be congratulated. But the four segments of this play are united by more than just the same stage-set. Each marriage has different problems and Simon analyses these with insight and a great deal of humour.

Clare Philbrock directs with a deft hand and is well served by her cast. Together they bring out the unity of the play making clear that its four segments are all variations on a theme of matrimony. The continuity of the action, as we move from one episode to the next, is cleverly managed by the hotel staff refreshing the room and preparing it for the next set of guests. This is a very American play and Simon was clearly writing for an American audience. We may have missed the odd stateside in-joke, but most of this humour is universal and the reactions of the Topsham audience showed that his acerbic view of marriage strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic too.

Anny Kilbourne gets us off to a cracking start as Hannah a hard-edged New York divorcee who is highly intelligent, successful, driven and totally out of her comfort zone in laid-back California. Dan Fields, as her ex-husband, looks every inch the casual Californian lotus-eater whose style of life she derides and maybe fears. As they discuss the future of their daughter, Hannah's insecurities and fundamental unhappiness are revealed and we see that behind her brilliant but brittle facade there is a very vulnerable woman. This is more than just the Comedy of Manners it first seems and the skill with which Hannah is played exposes the fine line between comedy and tragedy.

As well as the four episodes depicting different aspects of marriage, Simon also uses them to explore different genres of comedy. And so we move from the witty repartee and banter of the opening scene to classic sit-com. Imagine Terry and June re-cast as East-coast Jewish Americans. The situation from which all the comedy stems is revealed at the outset when husband Marvin wakes, hung-over, to discover a drunken hooker unconscious in his bed and his wife on the way up to their room. As Marvin, Bob Drury reveals a rare talent for comedy and his frantic efforts at concealment become increasingly hilarious. This humour only works because of the calm reasonableness (up to a point!) of his wife Millie. Less flamboyant than some other characters, this is one of the more difficult roles to play and Chris Eilbeck gets it pitch-perfect. The two complement each other perfectly - just like Terry and June.

Simon occasionally puts American idioms into the mouths of his English characters, but Maggie Bourgein adroitly side-steps these to give a sparkling performance as a quintessentially English actress, a leading-lady of British theatre. She has been nominated for an Oscar for a role she clearly despises in a film comedy. She doesn't win, of course, but we see her neurotic anxiety before the ceremony and her drunken resentment and despair afterwards. Maggie Bourgein skilfully keeps the audience laughing while revealing the sadness and insecurity of this unhappy woman. The ideal counterpoint to her fireworks is provided by Howard Eilbeck as her long-suffering bisexual husband. He brings to this role a subtle blend of waspish detachment and sensitive affection, ensuring that this roller-coaster episode ends on a note of quiet tenderness.

The four sections of this play all have a different tempo and, like the movements of many joyful symphonies, the evening ends with a galloping Rondo. Farce of this speed and quality is notoriously difficult to bring off. Too slow and it falls flat, too fast and it falls over itself and the dynamic of the humour is lost. It needs split-second timing from the actors and an iron control from the director. You know you have it right when the audience laughs as it did at this performance. Anyone foolish enough to have been on holiday with good friends will recognise the tensions that can arise. Keith Palmer & Rose Gander and Alan Caig & Angela Wallwork are all on top form as two couples who, by the time they reach California, thoroughly loathe each other. As comic disaster piles on comic disaster so, like true Californian surfers, the ensemble-cast skilfully rides the wave of laughter to the very end.

- Reviewed by: Robert Hole