Who says Marxism is dead?

THEATRE

ONE HAS a flat black moustache, cigar and low-slung walk. Another has a felt hat, beatific smile and craving for Italian food. A third never speaks and carries a props department in his raincoat. We recognise them as Groucho, Chico and Harpo, except it's not actually them, it's Ben Keaton, Joseph Alessi and Toby Sedgwick. For this is a Marx Brothers comedy with a twist. They aren't in it. Only their characters remain. If that sounds as much fun as a custard pie without the custard, then the news from Manchester - where the Royal Exchange has revived Animal Crackers - is that Marx Brothers comedies stand up pretty well without them.

It's inspired. One of the discouraging features of Marx Brothers films, apart from the fact that they get shown at 1.30am on Christmas Day, is the staginess of the comedy. The speed with which cinema has progressed since the 1930s makes theatrical scenes in films harder to stomach than cinematic ones on stage. Here we have vaudeville routines, pantomime jokes, slapstick falls and police chases, hundreds of entrances and exits, and an awesome amount of sheer running around. In the theatre-in-the-round it makes for an atmosphere of intoxicating nonsense. This is circus time. Keaton, Alessi and Sedgwick don't offer reverential showbiz impersonations. Rather Groucho, Chico and Harpo emerge as endearingly energetic stage types, the Harlequins and Pantaloons of their period. With this version of Animal Crackers, the directors Gregory Hersov and Emil Wolk return the Marx Brothers to their first home.

Some of the credit must go to George S Kaufman. Animal Crackers was one of 70 Broadway shows that he worked on (his collaborator here was Morrie Ryskind). You can be sure, watching this sprawlingly frenetic revival, that Kaufman and Ryskind weren't hired for their grasp of the three-act structure. The story has about as many strands as the spaghetti that Chico eats, and some are about as long and as thin. They were hired, presumably, for their endless stream of gags. There are more jokes in Animal Crackers than ... than ... (finish this one off for me, will you, Mr Kaufman?).

From the outset Hersov and Wolk establish an air of zany delirium. A master of ceremonies announces the members of the audience as they enter the auditorium. Press photographers swarm around, flashing lightbulbs, as the bejewelled hostess Mrs Rittenhouse (Britta Smith) welcomes you to her party. Flunkies hand out canapes from silver trays. There's a band on the balcony level, and fairy lights running round the auditorium. When Chico (Alessi) spots a member of the audience drifting off, he hoiks the offender up on stage. We have the giddy sensation of never quite knowing when the cast have departed from the script.

For this kind of fast-talking physical comedy, Hersov and Wolk have assembled a strong cast which combines movement skills learnt with Jacques Lecoq and Theatre de Complicite with the improvisational know-how picked up at the Comedy Store and the Edinburgh Fringe. The mix is perfect. Groucho Marx used to ask ushers on the way in whether the play was "sad or high-kicking". It had to be one or the other. This one kicks higher than most.

One thing that can be said about South Pacific, which gets a well-sung, if slightly spartan, revival at the Drill Hall, is that neither Richard Rodgers nor Oscar Hammerstein (nor Joshua Logan, who helped Hammerstein with the book) had any direct personal experience as a stepmother. Nellie Forbush (Joanna Maddison) rejects her lover Emile de Becque (Peter Polycarpou), whom she has known for a few short weeks, because at the last minute she finds out the following (see which detail would trouble you most):

1 Emile is a widower.

2 Emile has two kids (whom Nellie, no doubt, will have to look after).

3 The late Mme de Becque was Polynesian.

The answer is 3. This is the season of goodwill, and it's good to be told not to judge "people whose skin is a different shade". But there's a lesson here for composers and lyricists. It's not the war in the Pacific that dates this musical, it's the virtuous plot-line. I'd have been furious not to have been told about the two kids.

It's because this is a some-expense-spared production that the bare mechanics of the book stand out more starkly against the sprightly luxuriance of Hammerstein's songs than the coconut palms and banyan trees do against the coral sands. (Close your eyes if you want to see them.) South Pacific works best when the backdrops are a good deal more lavish than the costumes. Here Patti Boulaye seems to wear more than the set. As Bloody Mary she glides imperiously round the stage, pushing out the boundaries of her character with a sexily protracted laugh and forbidding growl. In this gleamingly showbiz interpretation of Polynesian allure, Bloody Mary looks like the sort of mum who runs off with her daughter's boyfriend.

A wide, single set blurs the scene changes and, with limited choreography, a static feel descends on the island, suggesting at times a concert performance. If you don't have the resources to compete with the large-scale musical, you still need to be resourceful. This was a cheerful evening, but not an enchanted one.

Whoever invented melodramas ought to have established that they weren't meant to be done by people with sophisticated ideas about theatre. You can't do melodramas and put them in quote marks. In The Streets of Dublin, Fergus Linehan has adapted a hit play from the 1850s that Dion Boucicault adapted from a French play, Les Pauvres de Paris. Boucicault had the practical idea of changing the title for each venue he played (hence The Poor of Manchester, The Streets of Islington, etc). Linehan's idea - equally typical of its period - is to show Boucicault putting on and then acting in his own play. The danger of plays within plays is that they often turn out to be plays without dramas. Despite a flamboyant coat-swirling performance from Peter Land as Boucicault and a fine display of urgent postures from Edmund Kente as the gloweringly villainous Gideon Bloodgood, this is neither a revealing portrait of Victorian theatre nor a stirring melodrama. Boucicault knew better.

'Animal Crackers': Manchester Royal Exchange (0161 833 9833) to 3 Feb. 'South Pacific': Drill Hall, WC1 (0171 637 8270) to 20 Jan. 'Streets of Dublin': Brixton Shaw, SW2 (0171 274 6470) to 20 Jan.

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