Writer: Bill Manhoff
Director: Mark Stratton
Producer: Sheila Carter
Designer: Graham Kirk
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Owl and the Pussycat came to Thirsk Town Hall near the end of the third week of a four-week tour by the remarkable Esk Valley Theatre. Not content with a pretty much sold out month in the Summer at the Robinson Institute in Glaisdale, the company is on the road in a tightly scheduled tour of village halls, institutes and the occasional theatre throughout North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Cleveland.
Not that there is any diminution of quality in a production aimed at one-night stands in venues of often limited facilities. Of course a small cast is necessary – The Owl and the Pussycat is a two-hander – and structural work on the set isn’t really possible, but the quality of performance is excellent and Graham Kirk’s detailed set, with its window giving on to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, looked good on the Town Hall’s wide stage.
The play itself is an interesting choice. Described as “a classic American comedy”, it hasn’t, in fact, gained widespread currency, certainly not in the UK, in the 50-plus years since its first production. A major Broadway success in 1964, it combines wise-cracking one-liner comedy – a reminder that Bill Manhoff worked mainly in television sit-coms – with an unusual pair of protagonists, both beset by self-delusion, both vividly enough characterised to be seized on by Barbra Streisand and George Segal for the 1970 film.
Felix Sherman, introspective, fearful and pompously intellectual, is, in reality, an assistant in a bookshop, in his mind a writer – he does write, it’s true, stories of such pseudo-poetic banality that no publisher will look at them. Doubtless, his sexual hang-ups have led him first to train his binoculars on the uncurtained window of a local prostitute, then in a fit of prim morality to notify her landlord. The play begins when Doris, the prostitute (or, in her mind, the actress/model who turns the odd trick to help the bank balance), arrives at his apartment at midnight, having been evicted, and forces him to let her stay.
It is almost a given in the theatre that, if two totally different and ideologically opposed people are thrust together, they will fall in love, if of different sexes, or bond in eternal friendship, if of the same gender. So it is in The Owl and the Pussycat, but with Manhoff’s quirkily unpredictable take on the idea. The play begins with Sherman terrified of Doris’ sensual presence and she, in turn, insisting that he is gay and blasting him for ruining her life, but by the end of the long first scene, they are in bed together. No gradual awakening here! Manhoff then spins variations on the theme of their relationship through a series of shorter scenes spread over a period of time, always entertaining, not always forming a consistent narrative.
It’s the sort of play where thinking about the underlying themes is fine, but thinking too much about the plot is unhelpful, so Mark Stratton’s production sets a cracking pace. Cornelius Geaney Jr is authentically American as Felix, satisfyingly irritating in his smug timidity at first, increasingly manic as the action proceeds. Olivia Sloyan is a constant delight as Doris, bewilderingly changing role as the consummate actor Doris thinks she is, ending up making her way as the poised receptionist who can use the word “impeccable” impeccably – rather like Willie Russell’s Rita voiced by Marilyn Monroe!
Touring regionally | Image: Richard Ponter Photography