Theatre: Marxism today

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The Independent Culture
ANIMAL CRACKERS

LYRIC THEATRE LONDON

EVERYBODY'S FAVOURITE response to a ticket for a show is "what's it about"? Well, you asked. Mrs Rittenhouse, the well-upholstered, stinking rich Long Island society hostess is throwing a party to celebrate the unveiling of a statue owned by Rosco W Chandler, who isn't the art patron he pretends to be - he's Abe Kabibble the no-good Czechoslovakian fish peddler. You with me so far? Then the guest of honour, Jeffrey T Spaulding - "the T stands for Edgar" - arrives with much hoo-hah and everyone sings "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", and he sings "Hello, I Must be Going" before enticing his hostess with an insurance scam while toying with her affections and those of next door's vulgar vamp, Mrs Van Damme: "How can someone be so ugly with just one head?" At which point Signor Emanuel Ravelli turns up to negotiate his musician's fee with his partner The Professor, who doesn't speak, blows his horn and has a sideline in kleptomania. And that's just the first 10 minutes.

Of course, you'd have to be certifiably insane to watch the Marx Brothers for the plot. The glory of this Manchester Royal Exchange revival of the original stage show Animal Crackers is the casting. Toby Sedgwick may not play the harp (he does a solo on the saw instead) but who cares when he captures Harpo's unique mix of low cunning and heartbreaking innocence to rapturously funny effect. Whether indulging in rampant skirt-chasing or fleecing guests, Joseph Alessi's permanently on-the-make Chico appears to hold a masters degree in hoodwinking.

The lynchpin however, is the sublimely funny Ben Keaton, whose Groucho is a marvel. Wonderfully relaxed - and thus all the more engaging - punning and spinning through the joyously preposterous routines with timing to die for, leaping between insane good humour and defiant outrage like the master himself.

Unfortunately, whenever they're off-stage, everything plummets. You always did want to shoot the all-singing, romantic juvenile leads and these two are no exception, but the real problem is the direction. There's no rhythm to carry you over the holes in the structure - although decent lighting to isolate moments would help. It feels like everyone was so busy staging the gloriously anarchic set-pieces that they forgot everything else. Encouraging the actors to vault over the top is not the answer.

Yet watching the three central performances, all doubts vanish. Whenever they depart from the script - often - it hits you that these three pranksters are beyond mere impersonation. They're sensational.

Booking: 0171-494 5045

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