sat 20/07/2019

You Can't Take It With You, Royal Exchange, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

You Can't Take It With You, Royal Exchange, Manchester

You Can't Take It With You, Royal Exchange, Manchester

George S Kaufman's 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winner is fast, funny - and a little exhausting

'You Can't Take it With You': never a dull moment and it's all good funAll images: Jonathan Keenan

Oh, the joys of eccentricity. Welcome to the Vanderhof family of misfits. The head of the household, Grandpa Martin, refuses to pay any taxes, preferring to keep snakes on a hatstand. Good for frightening off the tax inspector, who unexpectedly drops by.

Other members of the three-generational New York family variously make fireworks in the attic, bake strange candy, play Beethoven on the xylophone, produce unrecognisable masks and write unsuccessful melodramas. Daughter Essie moves around the place as a hopeful hopeless ballerina, aided by an explosive Russian teacher, Olga (Maggie O'Brien, pictured below right with Adam Burton's Ed). Oh, and there are two tortoises, Groucho and Harpo. In fact, the only “normal” one is Alice, who’s in love with a well-heeled boy, but shies away from introducing him and his straight-laced parents, the materialistic Kirbys, to these embarrassing eccentrics, even at the risk of losing her fiancé. 

This is the wonderful world of You Can’t Take It With You, the 1936 post-Depression Pulitzer and double Oscar-winning stage and screen hit written by George S Kaufman, of Marx Brothers’ writing fame, and Moss Hart. Kaufman wrote Animal Crackers, which was memorably staged here some years ago. 

This time, as befits another zany comedy, the Royal Exchange has joined forces with the Told By An Idiot Theatre Company, whose co-founder, Paul Hunter, directs an all-action circus-style production. He exploits the theatre-in-the-round with furniture on wheels – watching some of the set changes is like being on the Waltzer. And he has a dozen athletic actors playing the 18 screwball characters. It’s fast and furious, sometimes exhaustingly so.

Amidst all the goings-on, the story builds up to the moment when the Kirbys come to dinner – on the wrong night, naturally, catching the family in chaos. Laid-back Grandpa, who believes in doing nothing that doesn’t make you happy, and the Wall Street-fixated Mr Kirby clash. The evening is a disaster, but everything works out in the end.

Hunter goes for broke with the action, explosive effects, noises and audience involvement. It’s not as hilarious as all that and it isn’t packed with those wisecracks which Kaufman wrote at his best. Perhaps inevitably, some of the rush-about antics seem gratuitous and wear a bit thin. But the production is full of incident, there’s never a dull moment and it is all good fun. 

There are some memorable comic performances, notably by Sophie Russell (pictured left), as the wannabe ballerina (she even descends dramatically from above on a trapeze), by Groucho lookalike Milton Yerolemou as Kolenkhov, the revolutionary ballet master, and by Golda Rosheuvel as the overblown drunken actress Gay Wellington, who provides a running joke. Christopher Benjamin as Grandpa Vanderhof provides a calm centre to the general riot.

You can guess which approach to life wins out between Vanderhof hedonism and Kirby capitalism, on which the play pivots. Burrow beneath the comedy and there’s a serious issue here – loving families. Is Grandpa mad or wise? Well, he’s happy in his own weird world. And he spreads happiness around him. You do come out of the theatre all the better for having shared a couple of hours or so with this madcap but heart-warming family.

The Royal Exchange is known for providing an antidote to panto at Christmas time – and this fits the bill riotously enough.

Burrow beneath the comedy and there’s a serious issue here – loving families


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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