Theatre: Top Marx

Animal Crackers Royal Exchange Mobile Theatre
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Slapstick is not dead. A new generation of clowns has taken over from Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and the original Marx Brothers. The Royal Exchange's Animal Crackers shows the form at its best. Fast and furious, yet sometimes in slow motion, never the crude custard pie variety, but at its balletic, beautiful best; inspired tumbling, surreal clowning; pure nonsense, without sense or sensibility, cruel and yet innocent, this display of organised chaos will leave your face aching for a week.

The Royal Exchange Mobile Theatre, with its circus air, is well suited to the acrobatic display. Entrances are through the audience, who are highly involved in the action, not just stooges for the performers to bounce off. From the start, with smarmy waiters mincing amongst the audience while the maitre d' announces the presence of ordinary patrons like visiting royalty, the atmosphere is charged for the spoof of all spoofs.

The original stage musical comedy script, by Kaufman and Ryskind, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, was a pastiche, which somehow acquired the zany logic of Perelman and Lewis Carroll, and the whole is lovingly preserved in this production.

Once a year the Royal Exchange pitches its tent in Kingsbridge, a stopover on an annual tour. The production of worthy plays is always well received, but the reception for Animal Crackers was simply ecstatic. Ben Keaton not only sounds and looks like Groucho, he moves like Groucho, with long strides as though his backside is on fire, striking out in all directions, fearing an attack on all fronts. Joseph Alessi doesn't quite have the craftiness of Chico, but exuberantly carries the audience through gales of mispronunciation. Toby Sedgwick plays the blank-faced Harpo to perfection, and beyond the natural stars of the production there is a wealth of humour in the rest of the cast. Miltos Yerolemou can turn laughter into pathos in a trice, Jean Chaillis's overblown dowager is in the tradition of Margaret Dumont; Sue Holland's deadly sexy society femme fatale recalls several who have smirked through this role in black and white. James Smith's discomfited straight man is a match for any who made a name in the role; even the standard juvenile leads are burlesqued by Sarah Redmond and Warren Kimmel.

In a way, Animal Crackers is a triumph for old fringe companies of the Seventies and Eighties. Ben Keaton and his co-director Emile Wolk have appeared in many small-scale touring groups. Toby Sedgwick had a long run as a mime artiste with Moving Picture Mime Show, and there is the looming presence of George Khan, a People Show veteran, in the band.

The tour continues today and tomorrow at Grimsby, followed by three- day stops at Egremont (5 June), Carlisle (11 June) and Bedford (17 June), then the Barbican Centre in London (29 June to 11 July). Box office 0161- 833 9833.