Misappliance of science

The Dispute/The Critic | Royal Exchange, Manchester
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The Independent Culture

For patrons in the cheap seats, Matthew Lloyd's sparky production of Sheridan's The Critic provides a joke unseen by the stalls. The stage floor is covered with elegant calligraphy, spelling out the nonsense cut from Mr Puff's play-within-the-play. Don't get too drawn in, though, or you'll miss even better jokes by the designer, Ashley Martin-Davis, such as two actresses portraying the banks of the Thames in huge panniers of astro-turf and head-dresses representing important public buildings.

For patrons in the cheap seats, Matthew Lloyd's sparky production of Sheridan's The Critic provides a joke unseen by the stalls. The stage floor is covered with elegant calligraphy, spelling out the nonsense cut from Mr Puff's play-within-the-play. Don't get too drawn in, though, or you'll miss even better jokes by the designer, Ashley Martin-Davis, such as two actresses portraying the banks of the Thames in huge panniers of astro-turf and head-dresses representing important public buildings.

You would also miss a new line that links the play with its partner on the bill. The French "genteel comedy" that Dangle reads in the first scene is here referred to as The Dispute. For this presentation of Marivaux's play, Lloyd has whacked the gentility out of it. We are invited to see whether women are more fickle than men. Two decades ago, a nobleman decided to bring up four babies - two boys and two girls - in isolation cells, in order to settle this question. Untainted by the corruption of society, they will meet and mate, showing whether inconstancy is genetic.

This plan, an amusing idea in 1744, has for us, of course, disturbing historical echoes, which Egle (Suzannah Wise) makes plain by bursting on stage goggle-eyed and barefoot in a white shift. The two young men, in white pyjamas, also look as if they have escaped from a mental institution. Together with Adine, a reserved, haughty foil to Wise's puppyish avidity, they fall in and out of "love" like children changing old toys for new. Five minutes after swearing eternal love to her man, Egle is making eyes at Adine's, not out of passion, but out of vanity and spite.

The Critic suffers slightly from two overly forceful females: Claire Benedict reproves her husband at breakfast as if denouncing him from the pulpit, and Wise's continued mugging is less suited to the role of grande dame. But the rest is lovely - Adam Godley as the greasily beaming Puff, the prototype press agent; James Duke's pompously overripe Dangle; Derek Hutchinson's Sir Fretful Plagiary, a sort of Donald Sinden parody; and Tom Goodman-Hill's blasé Sneer, his expression a constant war between distaste and disbelief.

Best of all is Ewen Cummins as the Spanish gallant in the play-within-the-play, duelling with one hand, pulling symbolic red ribbons from his costume with another, and desperately looking for a third to keep his moustache from falling off. Was this a first-night accident? If so, keep it in, Mr Lloyd, keep it in. To 11 Nov (0161-833 9833)

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