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Lindsay Williams & Peter Kerry; music Louis Ashton-Butler

Hope Mill Theatre and HER Productions.

Hope Mill Theatre Manchester

June 14-18, 2022; 60min

(and Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe, August 3-29 (not inclusive, see here)

The cast of Classic! at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester. All pics: Hope Mill Theatre
The cast of Classic! at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester. All pics: Hope Mill Theatre

Six actors in search of a record attempt to perform 42 classic novels in an hour in Hope Mill's fast and furious comedy romp, which is en route to the Manchester theatre's first-ever run at this summer's Edinburgh Fringe.

The first few of the novels, including Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights, set the irreverent tone and frantic speed. The audience knows enough plot: man meets whale, man wails on the moors while his sort-of lover sort-of comes home – to allow themselves to relax and follow the nonsense that develops, as six actors play six actors in multiple roles.

Just at the right time, the approach changes, bringing Pride and Prejudice as a silent movie, a barbershop rendition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and a great twist on Oliver Twist. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is almost a solo show - or is it two-hander? - from the versatile and engaging Amy Gavin as Vicky in the lead.

The pace changes again as the late rush to meet the numbers challenge sees a run of novels reduced to single lines, before the epic War and Peace is given eight minutes or so.

Both War and Peace and Wuthering Heights had their initial outings a few years ago at different J B Shorts events, closing a couple of their six-15-minute play evenings to great acclaim. Can the concept hold up for a whole, admittedly short, show?

The answer is largely yes: the changes in pace and the sharp writing of TV writers Peter Kerry and Lindsay Williams all contribute, while Joyce Branagh’s direction maintains a warmth within the spicy pace. On press night on Thursday, Branagh even took to the stage, script in hand, to stand in for the Covid-positive stand-in for Covid-positive actor Gareth Tempest.

The show is very much a collaboration. Louis Blair adds a musical flair, Althea Burey brings menace, charm and movement, Robin Simpson has a classical gravitas (plus a great American-crime-movie accent), while Amy Drake adds terrific engagement, briefly recruiting audience members as short-term extras.

Tom Sutcliffe’s stage management appears to be a well-oiled machine, presented with a off-hand flair, and crucial to the show’s success.

Classic! mixes inventiveness and clever ideas with just enough pantomime and slapstick to keep the entertainment level at high-octane. Occasionally I thought I had spotted something deeper, but barely had time to recognise what it might be – with one exception: deliberate irony, perhaps, to turn the nation’s favourite work of one of the nation’s most adept wordsmiths into a silent movie? Jane Austen was good at irony too.

I’m not too sure why it has to be 42 novels, but I am sure why it needs to be one hour: this show will wow at festivals, giving some light entertainment to the literary-inclined. It is already booked into a favourite venue, the Pleasance Courtyard, during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Otherwise you have until tomorrow to see it in Manchester.

Information and tickets here


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