In amongst the ballroom dancing, the elderly New York couple, the deckchairs on the poster and the practicality of the set, one might be forgiven for thinking that Daytona was a light-hearted affair, lacking depth and nuance. Yet in reality, the play’s foreground hides a far more serious character study, one that was fascinating to watch unfold at the Theatre Royal, Brighton last night (Sept 8).
We begin with Joe (Harry Shearer) and Elli (Maureen Lipman), practicing their ballroom moves in preparation for a competition the following night. Their rapport is clear to see – loving yet with more than a hint of frustration. This sets the original dynamic for the play, one that is broken when Billy (Oliver Cotton) shows up ‘out of the blue’ after 30 years. Billy comes with a story, one that becomes the crux of the play, and one that should remain a mystery. Beyond this, a few important twists await, some more predictable than others, but all having a great effect on those performing.
Not least in terms of his literal stealing of the limelight as he bursts in, it really does feel like Oliver Cotton is, or wants to be, the centre of attention here. In addition to his role as Billy, Cotton is the playwright behind Daytona, while his acting stands out more than either of the other two in this three-hander. It certainly feels as though Cotton’s writing is far better than his performance on stage. His portrayal of Billy, a seemingly eager, flustered and excitable man, comes across slightly forced, as though Cotton knows the impact of the words he himself wrote, and doesn’t want the audience to miss them. Yet in doing so, he takes the glare off his two co-stars. Cotton also experienced a brief blip in concentration, but in fairness recovered it well.
The writing is nevertheless superb, allowing a refreshing normality from Shearer, while never losing the subtext, one with several moral, contemporary and political implications. Where Cotton could not portray reality, he writes it well, and Shearer displays this by not ‘playing’ the role of Joe, but embodying it. Perhaps this familiarity with his role can be put down to the fact that he has held the role through its entire run thus far, since its debut last summer at the Park Theatre in London, while Cotton only took over the role of Billy from John Bowe.
As for Lipman, she’s also excellent, though in a different sense. Come the second half, Elli becomes a far more pivotal player than her sparse appearance pre-interval, and Lipman handles the dramatic lifting with aplomb; showing a character who, underneath the classic New York sarcasm, has true vulnerability and regret at the life she could have had. Within the play’s moral dilemmas, which are better approached with an open mind, she acts as the grey area, where Joe is black and Billy white.
Daytona is a play full of intriguing elements, with a few notable faults at the same time. Yet it’s certainly one to be recommended.
Daytona is showing at the Theatre Royal from 8th-13th September.