Though prolific, Alexander Ostrovsky is not as well known outside of Russia as, say, Chekhov or Pushkin. Told by an Idiot, using an adaption by Rodney Ackland, have taken his satirical play, Too Clever By Half, and relocated it from the 19th century to the Moscow of the 1960s. Paul Hunter’s pacey production, which boasts a terrific soundtrack packed with tacks by The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones, is one of big, broad brushstrokes.
Subtitled The Diary of a Scoundrel, the plot, such as it, when boiled down, is fairly straightforward tale of social climbing and comeuppance: a young man, Yegor Gloumov, plots and schemes to get ahead in life, deceiving would-be lovers and friends along the way, until the discovery of his diary betrays his true intentions. This, however, is just an excuse to really ramp up the sight gags and slapstick.
The production begins with a gigantic stuffed bear being rolled onstage, and a member of the cast stepping out from it. But this is followed by something of a shift in tone and actually things get off to quite a slow start. There’s an awful lot of movement and everyone seems to be shouting, to the point where it’s quite hard to work out what on earth’s going on. Gradually things calm down and the indivisual performances start to make their mark. Dyfan Dwyfor is particularly good as Gloumov, looking very much like David Tennant and displaying both Machiavellian cunning and charm in equal measure. Told By An Idiot co-founder Hayley Carmichael is also excellent as Gloumov’s duped aunt Kleopatra, who ends up falling for him, while the lion’s shares of the laughs are taken by Nick Haverson as the old man Kroutitsky.
There are moments when the production is genuinely brilliant. An extraordinary set-piece during the first half in which Gloumov declares his ‘love’ to Kleopatra is wonderfully choreographed, with Dwyor donning a sparkly gold jacket and singing Matt Monroe before being hoist up into the ceiling while Carmichael literally swoons into her sofa. It’s a scene that’s reprised effectively in the second half of the show to show the end of that love affair, a sequence that makes superb use of the revolving stage.
Yet the production’s energy is such it becomes exhausting after a while. With the first half along lasting nearly an hour and a half, it starts to feel a bit like hard work and the over-reliance on broad humour, slapstick and pratfalls begins to wear thin. While Haverson is a superb physical comedian (his walk as Kroutitsky is something to behold), there’s only so many times you can watch him fall over or wrestle with a stuffed tiger before it starts to grate. Also, as the plot is already a flimsy one, all the double-dealings and duplicitous behaviour can seem stretched to breaking point.
When it works it’s very entertaining and the production can’t be accused of a lack of imagination; there’s a lot to like here, including some audience participation involving a very game gentleman in the front row, and Hunter does keep things moving along at a breakneck pace, but it’s all a it too full-on, too ‘busy’, too much.