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Progress Theatre - Too Clever By Half

26th February to 6th March 2004.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Why this obscure choice?

Too Clever By Half, at Progress Theatre, Reading, from Thursday, February 26 to Saturday, March 6

Alexander Ostrovsky was a Russian dramatist writing during the mid to late-19th century, the years when the realistic school was supreme in Russian literature and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were creating their classic fiction.

Clearly not up with those 'greats', Ostrovsky through his 48 plays wrote on facets of Russian life that they left practically untouched - the new aspiring middle-class. This is the basis of Too Clever By Half, directed by David Supper and described as a sparkling satirical romp.

It tells of Gloumov, 'our hero', who, in quest for fame and fortune, is prepared to play on the weaknesses of both his relatives and their close friends to move up the social ladder. This, he believes, is achievable by pandering to their narcissism and cruelly defaming those that try to stand up to him.

Unable to contain his abhorrence of his 'marks', Gloumov decides to record his suppressed venomous thoughts in his diary. However, the journal is discovered by some of Gloumov's wealthy acquaintances with unwelcome results.

A simple tale, however, set against a background of 'jarring angles and colours', Ostrovsky's gallery of grotesques carry on with all of the congratulatory loquaciousness of the self-centred. It is difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight as their lack of warmth prohibits affection.

One cannot blame the performers, splendid in period dress, who acted with conviction and bearing, especially Mary Rutherford as Gloumov's mother and Amanda Booth as flirtatious Kleopatra.

In addition, Matt Tully as the 'servants', using his 'stock of comic voices', eased the load when most needed, although Rhys Lawton was perhaps too nice to be convincing as ambitious cad and scoundrel Gloumov.

It has to be stressed that the fault lay in the text and, to be honest, if you were looking for laughs I am sure Tsarist Russia would not be your first port of call.

Nevertheless, you have to admire Progress Theatre for offering something different from the usual output in Reading. However, it begs the question of why they chose this obscure minor piece for a 21st-century revival.