The Pick - You Can't Take It With You

December 8, 2011

You Can't Take It With You

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Until 14 January 2012

The extended Sycamore clan are the ultimate lovably eccentric family. Grandpa Vanderhof, the head of the household, gave up a good job decades ago because he "wasn't having any fun" and spends his time going to circuses and keeping snakes. He "doesn't believe" in income tax and is now 22 years in arrears, although he concedes to an irate inspector he might be willing to "pay about $75".

His daughter, Penny Sycamore, is a talentless amateur playwright, the author of lines such as: "Kenneth! My virginity is a priceless thing to me." Husband Paul spends his time making fireworks with an iceman who turned up on the doorstep eight years ago and has stayed ever since. Their daughter, Essie, cooks sweets but believes she's destined to become a ballerina.

The only level-headed Sycamore is the other daughter, Alice, who works on Wall Street and has just fallen in love with the boss' son, Tony Kirby. When he is about to come calling on her, she tells her family she wants him to get to know them "in easy doses", adding: "Don't read him any plays, Mother, and don't let a snake bite him, Grandpa, because I like him. And I wouldn't dance for him, Essie..."

Add in a boozy actress and Russian grand duchess who has fallen on hard times ("The last Czar always said to me: 'Olga, do not be stingy with the blintzes'") and you have all the ingredients of a classic farce. George Kaufman wrote scripts for the Marx Brothers and this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy he co-authored with Moss Hart in 1937 has much the same inspired zaniness. Frank Capra's 1938 film version won Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director.

All hell breaks loose when the straitlaced and ultra-respectable Kirbys turn up for supper at the Sycamores' on the wrong evening. A handyman sent out to buy frankfurters comes back with pickled pigs' feet. And no good can possibly come from a game where all the players have to provide their free associations to the words "potato", "bathroom", "lust", "honeymoon" and "sex".

Director Paul Hunter (above right) heard about the play when he was working in New York and someone recommended Hart's autobiography Act One (1959). Hunter's company, Told by an Idiot, tends to gravitate towards "fairly anarchic" productions, usually improvised rather than scripted, but he found he couldn't resist the sheer "level of anarchy, energy and physicality" of Kaufman and Hart's text.

Although incredibly fast and funny, he says, You Can't Take It With You is also "very American, not at all cynical, and has huge heart - it comes out of a screwball tradition quite unlike English farces".

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