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Too Clever by Half, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Too Clever by Half, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Too Clever by Half, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Told by an Idiot usher in the silly season with a rambunctious Ostrovsky satire

Exposed: Dyfan Dwyfor and Hayley Carmichael in 'Too Clever by Half'Jonathan Keenan

You know it must be the holiday season when comic caper-loving Told by an Idiot run riot in the Royal Exchange. Expect the theatre of the absurd, with glimpses of Keystone Kops and Marx Brothers-style zaniness. This time, director Paul Hunter has delved into 19th-century Russia and come up with Alexandr Ostrovsky’s self-styled “savagely funny comedy” Too Clever By Half, in the late Rodney Ackland’s adaptation.

With its “gallery of grotesques”, as Ostrovsky called them, led or rather duped by the likeable rogue Gloumov, there’s plenty to go at. And you can rely on Hunter and his company to go at it full pelt. The play opens as a giant stuffed bear with torchlight eyes is wheeled in – and one of the characters steps out of its belly. Another emerges from under a tiger-skin rug. Gloumov’s dotty, recently bereaved mother, all in black with a black eyepatch, reveals her husband’s ashes kept in a fancy urn in the sideboard.

And so it goes on. We know what we’re in for: an action-packed OTT interpretation, full of visual gags and special effects. It is funny, but hidden away in there is a satire on a society where everyone is duplicitous. Gloumov, energetically yet smoothly played by Dyfan Dwyfor (pictured below), is Machiavellian in his deceptions, but he’s only human.

Hunter has moved the play on by a century, from 1868 to 1960s Moscow, giving it a sharper political edge though it's muted by the desire to amuse. Ostrovsky was looking at an affluent Moscow, even then moving into a market economy, with all the human frailties that get-rich opportunities expose.  When Eisenstein produced the play in the 1920s, he used it to attack the relaxation of anti-capitalist laws in the post-revolutionary period. The relevance to our own times, too, is apparent.

Gloumov is a social climber who flatters and deceives, using people to get on in life even if it means marrying just to get a dowry of 20,000 roubles. The play’s subtitle is The Diary of a Scoundrel and Gloumov does indeed keep a diary. In the end it is stolen and read aloud to his gathered victims. He is exposed for what he is, but they also see themselves exposed – and yet find that he is the ringmaster they can’t live without.

Hunter has a 15-strong athletic and versatile cast, splendidly choreographed by Georgina Lamb as they make quick entries and exits and move smartly round the set. And there are all those “grotesques”, such as Kroutitsky, “an old man of importance”, apopletically realised by Nick Haverson, funny walks and all. Hayley Carmichael, co-founder and co-artistic director of Told by an Idiot, is wonderfully amusing as Gloumov’s seductive aunt Kleopatra, who falls for the bounder and is deceived by his apparent desire. She and Dwyfor play up to and off each other beautifully. At the height of their “affair”, Gloumov appears in gold jacket and boater as Matt Monroe croons, before disappearing aloft on a trapeze. At the end of the affair, Kleopatra aims to hang herself, but can’t quite reach the suspended noose. The silly season is up and running. Let the holidays begin.

We know what we’re in for: an action-packed OTT interpretation, full of visual gags and special effects


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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