The New Theatre’s weekly e-mail round-up was an eye-catcher: ‘Don’t miss Felicity Kendal and Simon Cowell in a classic bittersweet comedy’. I don’t know if this was a tactical marketing ploy, but probably unlike most 21-year olds, it wasn’t the music mogul’s name that roused my interest anyway. Scrolling further down the advertisement, I was relieved to see that Kendal’s co-star was in fact the far more legendary Simon Callow. I’ve always had a huge passion for our fine host of British actors, and the chance to see two veterans at home on the stage was too great to miss. As such, my tickets for Chin Chin were booked before I’d even read the synopsis.
The story opens in 1950s Paris when Cesario Grimaldi (Callow) and Pamela Pusey-Picq (Kendal) meet in a bar. They have little in common, apart from the fact that their spouses are having an affair and they must decide what to do. Cesario, an impassioned Italian (and a flawless accent by Callow) tempts Pamela, the repressed and dutiful English wife, to drown their sorrows over drink. Deciding to tackle their predicament together, they soon join forces in an unlikely relationship and comic double act. As they embark on a journey of alcoholism, interdependence and self-destruction, the final moments of the play see them prepared to embrace a world of simpler horizons.
If it sounds a little doom and gloom on paper, the performance of Chin-Chin is a tour de force of laughter. Callow delivers marvellously as the larger-than-life Cesario. If he’s not gesticulating, he’s boxing, skipping, or in a particularly entertaining scene, leaping seductively onto Pamela in their shady bedsit. Kendal is the perfect counterbalance to Callow’s comic brilliance, but she increasingly becomes the focus of the play as Pamela unravels into the free-spirited and liberated female of the 60s. This is an superbly subtle role reversal, and their opposing temperaments melt into one another almost unnoticed.
I’d say that ‘black comedy’ was a better way of describing the tone of Chin-Chin, which doesn’t quite have the sentimentality to be labelled ‘bittersweet’. There are alternating touches of slapstick humour and Beckettian absurdism as the characters shut themselves away in Pamela’s flat, her son locked in the cupboard by Cesario. In this curious intermingling of tones, the play explores the thin line between sanity and insanity, the elusive quest for happiness and the liberation of true companionship.
I was probably the youngest person in the theatre by several generations, but I unashamedly joined the ‘grandparent crowd’ in raising a glass to this play. It was a memorable experience to see two of Britain’s most celebrated actors give such an energetic, fulsome performance. The highlight of the night was watching Callow improvising on his feet as he struggled to uncork the crucial wine bottle. That intimate thrill of spontaneity is what the theatre is all about.
Chin-Chin was a gripping, finely-handled piece of drama, and the perfect form of escapism on Black Friday. ****