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Too Clever by Half (Manchester)

Although funny, Told by an Idiot's latest takes too long to warm up, says Alan Hulme

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Royal Exchange, Manchester

Dyfan Dwyfor as Yegor Dimitrich Gloumov in TOO CLEVER BY HALF (Royal Exchange to 17 August).
© Jonathan Keenan

Alexandr Ostrovsky has been dubbed the Shakespeare of Russia and his output was huge and influential but for English-speaking audiences he's best known for this one particular work (also sometimes touted by its subtitle, The Diary Of A Scoundrel), a madcap social comedy originally set in 1874.

It's a tale of poor young bachelor Gloumov, whose cynical mission is to wangle his way into upper class society, via marrying a wealthy woman. To achieve his goal he lies and flatters but, unable to contain his disgust with his victims he records his thoughts and schemes in a diary. And, eventually, of course, that diary is discovered by Gloumov's victims…

The script, here in an adaptation by the late playwright/screenwriter Rodney Ackland, is entertaining enough but whether or not it interests a 21st century audience depends largely on production and performance.

The Royal Exchange has given over its annual end of season romp slot to physical theatre comedy company Told By An Idiot and let them get on with it.

Director Paul Hunter and his team have updated the setting to the 1960s, still Moscow, apparently, though neither period nor place are particularly apparent.

The serious comment side of the piece is all about questioning how far a person would go to gain wealth and power – and with so many glaring examples all around us these days what goes on here is small beer indeed now by comparison.

Not much of that side of the piece comes to the fore however – despite the production's claim to be presenting a "savagely funny comedy" – until quite late on, the emphasis almost throughout being on the comedy.

And that doesn't get into its stride until at least two-thirds of the way through the long first act.

Until then, too many bits of business fall flat, many embarrassingly met with stony silence from the first night audience. But never fear, come the big love scene most stops are pulled out, climaxing in our hero ascending to the flies on a trapeze, and, on the whole, from then on in, there are plenty of smiles and even a few laughs.

Dyfan Dwyfor, as Gloumov, is an appealing presence throughout, an attractive anti-hero who isn't a natural comedian but acts as the hub for those who ought to be. Of which Nick Haverson, as an old man with a truly remarkable repertoire of funny walks and prat falls, leads the charge.

Overall, not quite clever enough.

- Alan Hulme