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Manchester theatre reviews

Justin Moorhouse as Zachariah Munning in ZACK. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Zack at the Royal Exchange

Comedian, Justin Moorhouse plays Zack in Harold (Hobson's Choice) Brighouses' funny, charming and perceptive tale about the things that make life worth living and how love can flower in unexpected places.

Reviewed by Fat Roland December 2010

When cousin Virginia arrives at the Munnings' to recuperate from an illness in Harold Brighouse's play Zack, she walks into several contradictions.


The first contradiction is a family stuck in its ways of seeing, summed up by an early comment from the family's number one son Paul that “you can't fight a prejudice. It's like fighting air.” And yet it's that prejudice that keeps the family's strongest asset, the bumbling younger son Zack, under wraps.


The contrast of the two brothers is the engine of the piece. Paul is a starchy tower of controlled anger clad in a brown tie and brown waistcoat. It’s a risk having such a dislikeable character – his zest to get what he wants stretches incredulity to breaking point – but Pearce Quigley plays him with charisma and knowing wit. Think Steve Coogan's cocky character Paul Calf transported back to 1910.


The eponymous Zack, played by Justin Moorhouse, provides the comic foil to Quigley's straight man. Shabby and aged by a tangled mass of facial hair, ‘Mr Zachary’ is lazy, unfocussed, indecisive, and as it happens, a devastating hit with the ladies and with customers of the family’s business. This is a comedy of manners, and here is a man who is “born to eat” and who never removes his spectacles because “it’s a trouble to be taking them off and putting them on.” He has little place in pre-war Britain, and doesn't his family know it.


The second contradiction is the business itself, torn between the dead wood of a joinery trade and the fading glories of a wedding catering service where people would rather buy furniture than feast. We don't get to see much of the business in the play, save for a spot of administration, Zack sharpening knives and an underwhelming model of a wedding cake. Much more real are the threats to the business, personified by a brutal debtor by the name of Wrigley who makes Paul look like sunshine and light.


Justin Moorhouse as Zachariah Munning in ZACK. Photo by Jonathan KeenanDoes Zack have any relevance for a thoroughly modern Northern world where these old trades have disappeared? Much of the audience faces an uncertain future and may work for businesses that could be gone in a year's time. Maybe that's the connection? The stripped-down stage in the Royal Exchange production suggests hopelessness as characters struggle to make ends meet in a less-than-dynamic economy about to be plunged into war; the Munning family seems desperate for an elixir. The sepia-tinted world of a hundred years ago raises a smile – the illegal moonshine, Little Hulton business wars, taking tea in the parlour – but perhaps it's the aspiration embedded in the script that chimes best.


Mrs Munning is the hard-faced matriarch holding it all together, a woman who married a joiner but ended up leaning on her catering expertise to make ends meet. She's desperate to save face in front of family and even employs a pretend maid while her cousin stays. Polly Hemingway looks like she is having the time of her life playing the mother as she battles to control the warring factions with grandiose hand gestures and steely looks – especially when the cousin becomes a love interest for both brothers.


Brighouse delivers strong female characters by the bucket-load, but this may be where the story falls down and why Hobson's Choice remains his most famous play, and not this one. Kelly Price's cousin Virginia is possibly the strongest character here, a level head in a bubble of emotional characters. As the denouement approaches, it becomes clear that it is Virginia who is to make the crucial decisions that will release Zack from his predicaments. It seems a shame the main protagonist can't grasp things for himself, although that doesn't stop their final scene together from being quite sweet.


And finally, there is the contradiction in the Royal Exchange play itself. The main character of Zack demands, as the script says, a “gift for jollification.” Thrusting a stand-up comedian into the round at the Exchange seems like an obvious choice, but it's a bold move. Ten years of comedy experience doesn't translate to stagecraft in a play, and initially it shows. Moorhouse pads round the stage like a cat on hot coals and his voice projection pales in comparison to his highly professional co-stars.


Then as the play progresses through the second act, something beautiful happens. Harold Brighouse's script is full of Northern wit which Moorhouse delivers with perfect timing and an enviable deadpan nature. “Some folks keep a cat or a dog, and when their feelings get too much to hold, they kick the cat. Well, I'm the cat in this house,” he says without a breath for pause and not a trace of sadness. And a crucial line at the end of the play, when Zack is asked the same question twice, is delivered with such perfect timing, it brings the house down. As Moorhouse grabs the laughs – and be clear, he isn't the only one with cracking one-liners – his confidence grows. By the end of the play he has the audience eating out of his hand. Ironic, considering the character's all-consuming appetite. He performs with such pathos, such celebration and such knowing humour, this production of Zack could not work without him.


Zack runs at the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, until 22 January 2011.

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