You Can't Take it With You, Royal Exchange, Manchester (5/5)


Paul Vallely@pvall
Tuesday 13 December 2011 11:35

Frank Capra's classic film It's a Wonderful Life has become as established a landmark in the modern Christmas landscape as Dickens's story of Scrooge did in post-Victorian times.

And aptly too, because its hero, George Bailey, the man whose Christmas Eve suicide is foiled by an angel who shows him how life would have been without him, is someone whose venial faults feel closer to our own than does the miserly extravagance of Dickens' villain.

But Capra made another film which inspired America in hard economic times. You Can't Take it With You was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning 1930s Broadway play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. It is the zany story of how the daughter of a wild bohemian family, the Sycamores, and the son of a straight-laced family of socialite bankers, the Hunters, fall in love - bringing the two families together with chaotic consequences.

But where Capra's film is an exercise in beautifully delicate comic whimsy this stage production, by the company Told by An Idiot, is a celebration of robust high energy anarchy which is not so much high farce as immensely sophisticated panto.

Without sacrificing beautiful attention to period detail it is furiously fast and funny, with dashing trolleys, objects - including a ballet dancer of understated absurdity- appearing from the ceiling, and the delight of fast changes as the actors switch flawlessly between characters. The action spills over into the audience with delicious danger in this theatre-in-the-round but the exuberance is skilfully controlled.

The gags, verbal and visual, come thick and fast: George Kaufman wrote scripts for the Marx Brothers. But the characters are utterly believable and the acting never slips so the wacky antics seem unquestionably believable within the internal logic of the world that director Paul Hunter creates. This is such a strong cast that it would be invidious to single out individual performances, for all have their moment to stand out from the ensemble work to riff in a solo spotlight - and all seize it with verve and accomplishment.

The real warmth and sheer silliness of it all overcomes the tendency to sentimentality in Kaufman and Hart's story of high spirits in the hard times of the Great Depression years. But it does celebrate kindness and creativity in a time when we are in danger of forgetting both. And it is very funny.

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