Groucho Marx may have shuffled off to vaudeville heaven long ago, but his spirit lives on through Ben Keaton in the Manchester Exchange Theatre's production of Animal Crackers. Former Perrier award-winner Keaton is terrific in this screwy musical comedy, not least when he indulges in a spot of Groucho-style ad-libbing.
A word of warning here, though: this sometimes extends to interaction with the audience. During the performance I saw, many a poor theatregoer ended up being humiliated by the man with the painted moustache - especially latecomers, or anyone laughing too loudly at the jokes. At one point, for instance, Keaton spots a man in the stalls with a novel on his lap. 'What's up? Expecting a bad scene?' he quips. Presumably, Keaton's spell as an improvisational comic at the Comedy Store was useful grounding for this zany role.
Joseph Alessi has Chico's looks and improbable Italian accent, whilst Toby Sedgewick is the very spit of the enigmatic Harpo - from his battered hat down to his slippered feet. Together, the trio more than keeps the illusion going that we're watching the original nutty siblings in action.
Animal Crackers was always meant as a vehicle for the comedic talents of the Marxes, and as such, George S Kauffman and Morrie Ryskind's plot takes back seat to a collection of anarchic jokes. Groucho is the big-game hunter Captain Spalding, who terrorises the party guests at Mrs Rittenhouse's (Jean Challis) mansion (designed by Ultz). Victims include art collector Roscoe W Chandler (Peter J Elliot), Mrs R's squeaky-voiced daughter Arabella (Sarah Redmond), and a Mae West clone named Mrs Van Damme (Hilary O'Neil).
To match the lightweight plot, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby have written some light, fluffy tunes, of which 'Hello I must be going' and 'Hooray for Captain Spalding' are the catchiest.
Co-directors Emil Wolk and Gregory Hersov have taken liberties with the original text, interpolating lines here and there from other Marx Brothers' classics, like Duck Soup. There's no harm in that, but what is questionable is the addition of some funny, though irrelevant visual gags - Mrs Rittenhouse's butler (George Khan) playing a sax, and a troupe of Riverdance hoofers under the influence of Guinness, for example.
You occasionally feel that Kauffman and Ryskind's one-liners have dated badly, too. 'One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. What he was doing in my pyjamas I don't know', is only forgivable because it comes accompanied by Groucho's trademark jumping eyebrows and daft walk.
However, the energetic performances of Messrs Keaton, Sedgewick and Alessi transcend any shortcomings in the material to make this a hilarious, if sometimes unsettling, evening's entertainment.