The Odd Couple
As they tread the boards together in the early '80s, a young Francis Greenslade sensed his friend Shaun Micallef was destined for big things. “I’m lucky I got hold of him when he was young and impressionable at uni and forced him to employ me every show he does,” jokes Greenslade.
Indeed, Greenslade has been a regular fixture in Micallef’s projects for years now, popping up in everything from sitcoms to talk shows. Of course, in collaborating with Micallef, Greenslade has also become a famous figure of Australian sketch comedy. He’s relished every moment, too.
“Something like Mad as Hell is the best job in the world,” he says. “Even more so, perhaps, The Micallef Programme, because on Mad as Hell you’re always playing an expert, a spokesman for something. Having said that, I do play a caveman and all sorts of things. But with The Micallef Programme, you’d be playing a Nazi war criminal, then you’d be playing a circus performer who’s urinating into a bucket.”
Now, Micallef and Greenslade are set to write another chapter of their storied collaboration, teaming up for Melbourne Theatre Company’s adaptation of classic comedy The Odd Couple. As Greenslade points out, creatively speaking, The Odd Couple represents a marked departure for the pair.
“This has been a different discipline. It’s not quite so stupid. You’ve got lines in a well-known play and it’s a whole new ballgame. Normally when Shaun and I do something, I’m dressed in a ridiculous beard with a Finnish accent and the sketch lasts for two or three minutes. Now, we’ve got a whole play where we’re on stage the whole time. You can’t just do the Shaun and Francis schtick anymore, you’ve got to do Neil Simon’s schtick and see what happens there. So, it’s been a very different process.”
Greenslade is set to portray Oscar Madison, a successful sportswriter with a slovenly side. “The play opens in Oscar’s house where he’s having a poker game with his mates. It’s a complete bomb site with clothes everywhere and he’s got no sense of personal hygiene,” explains Greenslade. “And then of course, through various circumstances, Felix – who Shaun Micallef plays – who is an absolute neatness freak, moves in and hilarity ensues. That’s basically the tenet of the play: two incompatible people sharing the same living space.”
At a crossroads with casting, Micallef and Greenslade initially proposed an audacious idea. “The original concept that Shaun and I foolishly had was that we would swap, do a week of one part and a week of the other part,” Greenslade says. “The MTC weren’t very keen and Peter Houghton, who’s directing, wasn’t very keen and, you know, halfway through rehearsals it became apparent to me that it was a good idea not to.”
After all, Greenslade well and truly has his hands full with Oscar. “I think one of the most challenging things [about the show] is how physical it is, because the two of us are on stage a lot. It’s a play of conflict. There’s a lot of running around and chasing each other and shouting. Doing one show is a big thing, especially for an ageing character-actor like myself. Wedging yourself into the part and trying to find the character in yourself is always difficult.”
Following a satisfying rehearsal, Greenslade is feeling more ready than ever to faithfully recreate Neil Simon’s classic play. As for life beyond The Odd Couple, Greenslade is more than happy for Micallef to pick up the phone and rope him into yet another project. “He better. I’ve got my children to feed, so he’d better,” he jokes. “I know where his bodies are buried, so the next project he’s got, I’ll be standing in the back of screen waving a spear, don’t worry about that.”
By Nick Mason