Off The Kings Road is the first full-length play from former Hollywood publicist Neil Koenigsberg. A touching reflection on grief, companionship and getting older, the play sees American widower Matt Browne check into a small hotel in London, where he intends to spend some quiet time rebuilding his life following the death of his adored wife, Betty, from cancer. But London has other plans for Matt, and the resulting journey of self-discovery is at once laugh out loud funny and powerfully moving.
Michael Brandon leads the cast as Matt with a performance that perfectly captures his character’s fragility, but also his humour and compassion; we can’t help but like this genuinely good guy who’s just trying to make his way in a new, unfamiliar world. Along the way he meets some interesting characters, among them Freddie, the hotel concierge, and Ellen, a crazy cat lady from down the hall. Luke Pitman and Cherie Lunghi shine in these roles; as a long-term resident, Ellen has a close friendship with Freddie, and the affectionate scenes they share on stage are wonderful to watch. Though the two roles are predominantly humorous ones, with both actors revelling in their characters’ eccentricities, there are hidden depths here too: Freddie, while often a touch over-enthusiastic, is very good at his job and genuinely cares about his guests’ welfare, while Ellen turns out to have a lot more in common with Matt than he realises.
Diana Dimitrovici also appears as a Russian prostitute, the intriguingly named Sheena McDougal. Following their first encounter in her flat, the relationship between Matt and Sheena moves in a direction that’s not wholly unexpected, but no less touching for its predictability, and Dimitrovici gives a strong performance as a young woman disguising her own vulnerability with a veneer of toughness.
In a unique and thoroughly modern twist, the cast of Alan Cohen’s production includes a fifth member, one who never sets foot on the stage; Oscar winner Jeff Bridges ‘e-appears’ as psychiatrist Dr Kozlowski, with whom Matt has several Skype calls throughout the play. There’s comedy gold in these scenes, partly in watching the two men attempt to use the technology, but mostly because Kozlowski is a spectacularly bad psychiatrist, who’s going through his own marital difficulties, and seems permanently a bit stoned. But where he fails as a doctor, he succeeds as a friend – proof that we don’t always need someone with all the answers; sometimes we just need somebody who’ll listen when things go wrong. These scenes fit so naturally within the live action, and Brandon interacts with the screen so well, that it’s almost possible to forget Bridges’ appearance is pre-recorded.
At its heart, Koenigsberg’s play is a celebration of human relationships, in all their wonderful weirdness. Matt starts out as a lonely figure, but as soon as he allows other people in, his life begins to change (mostly) for the better. Like the Ingmar Bergman movie referenced throughout the play, this bittersweet comedy is the story of a man on a journey, both physical and emotional – and like its characters, it’s very hard not to love.
Off The Kings Road is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 25th June.