The Seven Year Itch
by George Axelrod
Salisbury Playhouse Production
7th April 2012, matinee
When Axelrod wrote The Seven Year Itch in 1952, he was already a veteran of 400 radio and film scripts. His one desire was to do a Broadway hit play, which put him at odds with years of fellow playwrights. All the others had the ambition to abandon Broadway, and write Hollywood movies. When talkies came in, there was a massive influx of playwrights into Hollywood as the producers scoured New York theatre for experienced dialogue writers (they often ousted novelists in the Dream Factory). It lasted. Playwrights were considered more efficient and easier to adapt to screenwriting.
The Seven Year Itch played for 1141 shows on Broadway, before being adapted to the Billy Wilder film with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The Salisbury programme notes record that the Motion Picture Code emasculated the adultery storyline to Axelrod’s dismay. The programme also pointed out that he felt Marilyn Monroe unbalanced the story, shifting the focus from Richard (the central character) to The Girl. Axelrod had a point. Males might agonize over adultery, but Marilyn Monroe in her prime would be irresistible to most. But not all. Legend has it that crooner Frankie Vaughan got the full come-on when co-starring with Marilyn in Let’s Make Love, and declined her advances. This production tried to take it back to Axelrod’s aims.
I hadn’t seen the stage play before, but had seen the film several times. I beg to differ. Marilyn Monroe improved it for me and millions of cinemagoers. The film also brought out the sweltering humidity of New York in summer, when all the wives and kids retreated to Long Island, or upstate resorts. Again the programme says that the stage better dealt with the fantasy sequences and Richard’s internal monologue, because film makes the fantasies look too real. The most interesting and innovative thing about the play was its wholesale importation of cinematic devices into the theatre: fantasy flashback, internal monologue using the actors’ recorded voices over the sound system, at Salisbury at least a projected thinks bubble with gossiping silhouettes on film.
I wish I’d seen this production of The Seven Year Itch before Zach Braff’s All New People a month ago. I mentioned the Broadway tendency to very small casts and a single, but elaborate set. This is the classic example. America poured the resources into musical theatre, but to me, too many stage plays are too confined and just not terribly “theatrical.” I’m also in retrospect vastly more critical of Braff: Like The Seven Year Itch, All New People is based on one character who never leaves the stage, it uses flashbacks, it uses voice over, heavy items drop dramatically onto the set, a central character is a ditzy female who intrudes in central character’s life, a gas fire gets lit suddenly. I also noted how far Love On The Rocks, a play the Nuffield Southampton produced twice, imitated Axelrod’s Mills & Boone style romantic fantasy sections.
Hattie Ladbury (Helen) in one of Richard’s fantasy pieces
So The Seven Year Itch was innovative in its day. It relies heavily on Richard, the central character, played here by Gyuri Sarossy. Sarossy is never off stage. Everything is filtered through him and he carries it extremely well. The whole cast suffer from the inevitable accent issue. They’re all near perfect on American accents, but note the “near.” I spent years doing educational audios with British and American actors, and nowadays you find it harder and harder to tell when they’re faking the other accent. Hard, but rarely impossible, and I suspect any American would be mildly irritated watching it. You have to get over that and accept it as “British actors being American” which is easier for the British to do. We get so much of it. Braff had the advantage of casting himself in the main role, with British support, so at least he could mentor and check. You should have one genuine American in the cast. Even so, when I saw Gene Wilder in Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, the British actors around him seemed to affect his accent. Maybe he was being kind and matching their efforts. I suspect he was in a bad point in life and just couldn’t act. He was truly, deeply dire. I say this with the bitterness of someone who bought four tickets and stayed overnight in London to see one of my favourite screen actors in a one star out of five production.
Verity Rushworth (The Girl) and Gyuri Sassory (Richard)
Hattie Ladbury plays the wife, Helen, and she was the reason we went to see it, having seen her in A Game of Love And Chance last year. It’s not a huge part though she does the Mills & Boone bits in wonderful style (the love scene with ‘Tom’ played by Michael Stevenson, and the revelation of adultery fantasy flasback where she shoots Richard with a gun produced from a mixing bowl). Gerard Murphy is a splendid Dr Brubaker, the pscho-analyst. Verity Rushworth plays all ‘the girls’ in scene one, then The Girl … Marilyn Monroe’s part. As we said with the film My Week With Marilyn, virtually no one can compete with Ms Monroe on tangible sexuality in a ditzy girl role, though Susannah Fielding gets pretty near as Kim in Zach Braff’s play. The Girl here has all the necessary vulnerability, and the lines come from Axelrod’s life, but the production deliberately eschewed any Monroe connection, which includes costume. I hadn’t realized till the curtain call that Hattie Ladbury and Verity Rushworth have a definite facial similarity, so much so, that one would have been tempted to add a line somewhere to point it.
Verity Rushworth (The Girl) and Gyuri Sassory (Richard): What happens …
As ever at Salisbury, the set is fabulous, beautifully angled to show the 50s kitchen and the balcony. The stairs are written in to the plot. The lights guide us into the fantasy sequences, and were expertly done.
Richard tries to get Dr Brubaker to pscho-analyze him
Overall, I find the play a little dull. There’s nothing spectacularly theatrical about it, and the story’s now tame, and the central plot is from a pre-Mad Men era of sexist assumption. It’s funny, but not VERY funny. At heart its only justification is comedy, so “not funny enough” is damning. I think it needed to go over the top on Mad Men style in dress, and over the top on comedy with a broader brush. Baby doll pyjamas when the girl is emerging from the bedroom, that sort of thing. Ah, in other words more like the movie.
Smoking note: essential to the plot. I felt sorry for Sarossy with the amount of soft drink and fake whisky he had to consume. He ust have been bursting for a pee by the interval. The herbal cigarette old bonfire smell filled the theatre. I’m glad they weren’t real, but recently both the RSC and Bath seem to have odourless stage cigarettes.