Fringe Review: Groucho

GrouchoPresented by Cornerstone Events
Reviewed Thursday 20th February 2013

The Marx Brothers took comedy into a new, free, fresh direction that led the way for many who came after them. Their anarchic approach to comedy shook the cobwebs out of the genre.

Groucho (Julius Henry) Marx, working with his siblings, Chico (Leonard) and Harpo (Adolph/Arthur), The Marx Brothers quickly became know world wide and were the greatest of the comic stars of the silver screen. There were two other brothers in the stage act, but Gummo (Milton) left the act before they transferred to films, and Zeppo (Herbert Manfred) dropped out after playing straight roles in the first five films.

The Capri Cinema is an ideal setting for this intimate look at the life of Groucho Marx. The magnificent sound of the mighty Wurlitzer organ, in all its aural and visual glory, played a selection of music to entertain the audience before the performance, as it would originally have done before the films were shown. As the organ console sinks below the stage, the mood has been set for this journey into the past and one of films best known comedians.

The performance begins with Groucho singing a sad and slightly broken version of the song, Hello, I Must be Going, then the mood lifts and he crosses to his long running radio and television game show, You Bet Your Life. There follows a series of short segments that tell of his life, career, family, and finances, beginning with an interaction with his alcoholic daughter, and ending shortly after the death of his mother, Minnie, the person who had been the prime mover behind the brothers’ career. We also see the developments of the stage persona of Groucho.

The second half of the performances finds an aging Groucho, the sole surviving member of the family, reminiscing to a reporter. As he looks back over his life, his marriages, the stock market crash, and his career, the reporter morphs into a range of people from his life, including Charlie Chaplin.

Dennis Manahan, as Groucho, peaks in the second act, in which he plays Groucho, the man. In the first act he delivers some of the fast paced passages and one-liners from the films quite well, but the physicality is not really there, and his thin and occasionally inaccurate singing voice just doesn’t cope with the comic songs. Groucho, the stage character, is a very tough character to portray and it is seldom done with great success. Playing the man himself in the second act becomes an actor’s role and Manahan excels in his portrayal.

Anna Burgess plays every other character, including Chico and Harpo, their mother, Minnie, Groucho’s daughter, Miriam, Charlie Chaplin, and many more. In the first act, Burgess is the star of the piece, particularly effective as the other two brothers. Cardboard cut-outs of all of the other characters are placed across the rear of the stage and each has a few pieces of clothing and properties stashed behind it, which she rapidly interchanges to help create the myriad of characters that she portrays. In the second act the two performers take an equal footing that the first part lacks/

Neil Cole wrote the play, which is directed by Don Bridges, and one wonders if he realised at the time that he had written a play to showcase the person playing all of the roles except for Groucho, because that is what this is, and Burgess is sensational in all of those roles.

The performance ends as it began, with Groucho sadly singing, alone, and the lights go out once more.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

Adelaide Fringe page

Venue: Capri Cinema, Goodwood Road, Goodwood.
Season: ended
Duration: 60 mins

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