Review: Too Clever By Half at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Apologies, Tortoise Soup fans, for the lack of recent updates. I have been run off my feet thanks to the outstanding success of my thriller novel ‘The Girl On The Bus’ – now in its seventh week in the Amazon UK top 100 bestsellers! It has been an incredible journey and in my next blog I will tell you how I did it and what it’s like being a bestselling writer.

Today, however, I feel compelled to tell you about a play that I saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre – ‘Too Clever By Half’ by the Russian playwright Alexandr Ostrovsky. I had a free a pair of free tickets for this show (thanks to Clare at the Royal Exchange) but even if I had paid I would have come away with a smile stretched across my face.

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This is a little known play by a little known playwright but don’t let that put you off. When we think of Russian playwrights we think, of course, of Chekhov and then of Gogol and Pushkin but in his homeland Ostrovsky is equally as famous. Hopefully this production will go some way to enhancing his reputation in the UK.

Too Clever By Half is a comedy that was written in 1868. The producers have updated this setting to the 1960s and this doesn’t detract one bit – in fact it gives us a chance to hear some wonderful 60s sounds from the likes of Small Faces and The Rolling Stones.

Don’t expect a standard Victorian era comedy here. Ostrovsky injects a large dollop of the absurd and the whole seems to be indebted to English restoration comedies. This is no bad thing at all. People climb out of tiger skins and giant stuffed bears. Lovers transform into horses before our eyes, complete with fences to gallop over.

The whole thing is done with such speed and precision that is impossible not to get carried along by the wit and passion. It is uproariously funny in parts, especially in some of the physical theatre brought to a climax in the scene where Nick Haverson (as a short sighted Kroutistsky) rolls on the floor with a tiger skin rug under the impression that he is being attacked by a dog.

The play is timeless in that it could have been set yesterday or a thousand years ago. It deals with an old story: ambitious young man will stop at nothing to advance himself socially, tricking all around him on his way up the ladder. Ostrovsky, and the wonderful young cast, elevate this premise into a truly wonderful theatrical experience. This is possibly the funniest evening I have ever had in a theatre. The incredible love scene at the end of the first half has to be seen to be believed but i won’t spoil the surprise for you!

Particular praise must go to Dyfan Dwyfor in the lead role of Gloumov. This is a scheming, spiteful young man who thinks nothing of betraying the people who love him. Despite this, thanks to Dwyfor, we in the audience cannot help warming to him and as the denouement approaches we find ourselves rooting for him against our will.

Well done yet again to the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. At a time when many playhouses are playing it as safe as houses, they are not afraid to take artistic chances. This has paid off in spades, and this exhilarating, fantastically absurd and riotously funny play gets a five tortoise shell rating from me! The play runs until 17th August and I heartily recommend this as a summertime treat.

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