Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Harold Brighouse's northern comedy Zack—a lesser-known cousin to his Hobson's Choice—is directed by Greg Hersov as the Royal Exchange's non-festive but lighter theatrical offering for the festive season.
In the middle class Munning household, Mrs Munning has inherited a struggling joinery business from her late husband but in order to make ends meet has added her own speciality, catering, to the firm's mixed repertoire of services. The company is managed with ruthless efficiency but no personality by her son Paul, whereas her clumsy and indiscreet son Zack, written off long ago as useless, is kept out of the way.
When Mrs Munning's niece Virginia comes to stay to convalesce in the country after an illness, The Munnings engage a maid Sally to look as though they are thriving. Zack's innocent 'comforting' of employee Joe Wrigley's daughter Martha is misinterpreted as an act that will require him to marry her, but this fits in with Paul's plans to marry into Virginia's money. However when it comes to light that Zack is rather more important to the business than his brother or mother suspected, Virginia takes charge to force an ending than neither of them expected.
As you might expect from the writer of the popular Hobson's Choice, this is a very well-written northern comedy with a few nicely-drawn characters mixed with a few stock 'Lancashire mill town' characters. Although set a century ago and with a few attitudes towards relationships and employment that are foreign to our modern ways, the basic situation certainly still works for a modern audience and the jokes that arise from it are still able to raise laughs.
The Royal Exchange has chosen stand-up comedian Justin Moorhouse for the title role whose only previous stage credits in his programme biography are for pantomimes, but this role is played perfectly straight, allowing the comedy to arise naturally, to create such a loveable and believable character that there are many moments when it feels like the entire audience wants to put out its arms and give him a collective hug. His acting inexperience does show a little in his vocal projection as there are a few times when it is a struggle to hear everything he says, but he can be forgiven this small flaw in an otherwise beautiful performance.
There is another great performance from Pearce Quigley as brother Paul who speaks everything in a flat, monotonous tone, which could become tedious in the hands of a lesser actor but Quigley makes it very funny and perfect for this dull and ultimately unlikeable character. Polly Hemingway gets across the stern, strong and sour-faced matriarch Mrs Munning very well, not helped at all by the sharp-tongued maid Sally in a very funny performance from Michelle Tate. Kelly Price is perfect in the character of kindly but firm Virginia with a strong sense of justice, and there are some nice supporting performances from Samantha Power as Martha Wrigley and James Quinn as her father Joe.
This production is funny, touching and very well-performed and stands out as a great piece of light and entertaining theatre for adults in an otherwise disappointing year in Manchester for non-pantomime theatre over the Christmas period.
Running to 22 January 2011
Reviewer: David Chadderton