The Park Theatre, which some may know as “that brand new theatre in Finsbury Park”, can now be known as “that brand new theatre with that really good, brand new play in Finsbury Park.” The world premiere of Oliver Cotton’s Daytona, a three-person comedy-drama about an ageing couple and their unexpected guest from the past is a dynamo of a piece made triumphant by its stellar cast.
The opening scene is pretty consistent with America’s ideal of the ‘golden age’: a healthy couple in their 70s with a joint hobby for ballroom dancing, who, despite constant bickering, understand each other and have a long history of support and affection. However, the nearly half a century of stability that Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer) have enjoyed is shaken to its core with the arrival of Billy (John Bowe), Joe’s brother who mysteriously disappeared from their lives 30 years earlier.
Without giving too much away, the rest of Daytona reveals many dark, complicated, lingering remnants of the threesome’s past, and newer developments that are destined to change all of their futures. As these events come to the surface, Elli, Joe and Billy are forced to confront many uncomfortable realities that they’ve managed to suppress for decades. Oliver Cotton’s meaty plot and sharp, witty dialogue make for a poignant drama, and David Grindley’s production is top notch in bringing it to life.
At the heart of the play’s success are Lipman, Shearer and Bowe. As Elli Zimmerman, Maureen Lipman is intense, passionate, hilarious, snarky and fragile under a façade of toughness. Joe and Billy complement each other superbly as estranged brothers. Shearer, nebbish-y and simple yet strong-willed, and Billy, boisterous and impulsive yet desperate, create an intricate dynamic that, together with Lipman, can be heartbreaking. These three actors master the demands of Cotton’s script; moments of comedy, tragedy and many levels inbetween are acted to perfection.
The play really soars in its realism; though consistently eventful and dramatic, Cotton’s natural dialogue, Grindley’s effective direction, Ben Stones’s realistic set design and the subtlety of the performances ultimately portray what feels like a gripping slice of life rather than a theatrical drama. It was also fulfilling to see a play focusing solely on the lives of people in their 70s; it often seems that older people in theatre are reduced to character roles or bitter widows, and it was refreshing to see such fully fleshed-out characters full of passion, aspiration, regrets and depth.
It’s a brave move for a brand new theatre to produce a brand new play. It requires a great amount of faith in the production, and in London audiences to take a risk and break from routine. But I can assure you the risk is small and the rewards are great, and the Park Theatre is a welcome addition to London’s thriving theatre scene.
Daytona is at the Park Theatre until 18 August. For more information and tickets visit the Park Theatre website.