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The odd couple

PUBLISHED: 18:03 28 August 2008 | UPDATED: 17:28 16 August 2010

The title may not give much away, but Lionel Goldstein s Halpern & Johnson, currently running at Hampstead s New End Theatre, tells a

The title may not give much away, but Lionel Goldstein's Halpern & Johnson, currently running at Hampstead's New End Theatre, tells a wonderfully evocative story based on an intriguing premise, writes Mark Campbell.

The play opens with a virtually bare stage as Joe Halpern (Bernard Kay) is paying his last respects to Florence, his wife of 50 years.

As he makes to leave, a stranger arrives to place flowers on her grave - the awkward figure of retired accountant Dennis Johnson (Ian Barritt).

Johnson, it transpires, has been conducting a 'liaison' with Flo (as he refers to her) for the entire duration of their marriage.

Maybe not a sexual liaison - although they were lovers before Joe arrived on the scene - but certainly a relationship of extreme intimacy.

Halpern's initial shock at this revelation is soon replaced by an understandable outrage - both at his wife's seeming 'unfaithfulness' and Johnson's offhand confession.

Dennis invites Joe for a picnic in a nearby park and the bereaved husband is not slow to make his feelings plain.

But when Joe accuses him of stealing his wife, Dennis makes the startling claim that he, Joe, has stolen his entire life.

Goldstein's razor sharp script is free of sentiment and frothing with deliciously funny observations.

It also has the ring of truth about it, despite the very occasional lapse into contrivance.

Veteran stage and screen actors Bernard Kay and Ian Barritt bring glowing life to the words, under the sensitive and sympathetic direction of the author, Lionel Goldstein.

Barritt, wide-eyed and verbose, is the more comic of the pairing, with Kay a dour presence seething with barely restrained ire, at least at first.

But as the two explore each other's past half-century of experiences, they find they have some unlikely things in common.

Although packed with quintessentially Jewish humour, Halpern & Johnson is not a 'Jewish play' as such.

Told in Pinteresque half-sentences and with an ear for the prosaic and the profound, Goldstein's script imbues this potentially dark subject matter with warmth, vitality and a great many laugh-out-loud moments.

* Halpern & Johnson by Lionel Goldstein is at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, until 31 August. Tickets: 0870 033 2733.

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