Sunday, August 6, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Goody' at the Pleasance Courtyard, 6th August 2017

Goody reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Goody is a romance betwixt man and chimp. It's a bold and ambitious concept for a show, blurring the line that divides man from his animal brethren. Set in a travelling circus during the Great Depression, our star-crossed lovers are Frances Bailey (Jesse Rutherford) and Goody (Lucy Roslyn). Frances' gig is chimp trainer and circus performer, and Goody is his one remaining chimp. 

All is not well in the Boon and Doggett Travelling Circus. Frances is ominously missing the thumb of his right-hand and we learn that if their next performance isn't note perfect then Frances is going to be turned out on his ear and Goody will be executed. This results to a frayed drama between man and ape - Frances speaking to Goody as if she might understand danger of the situation while Goody reacts in pretty much the way you'd expect a human acclimatised chimp to, alternating between affection and frustration as she tries to *read* her owner/partner.

The two have a seriously complex relationship, part paternal, part romantic and with commercial and social pressure heaped upon them. Undercurrents of cruelty run throughout the piece - with Frances continually mocked for his kindness to the chimpanzees and informed that he "must break their spirit" if his act is to succeed. To the circus folk, animals are tools that cannot feel pain and they have the absolute right to deform, torture and abuse them as they see fit. 

This leaves the characters of Goody without the possibility of a happy ending, and both seem to know it. Frances, who only took the job to escape dust bowl starvation and has raised Goody from a baby, knows deep down that there's no escape from this, he's even bullied by the dropouts and runaways that form the circus. And for Goody, the best case scenario is a truncated life of slavery and degradation, with next to none of her social needs being met.

It makes the scenes of them practising for their show - which consists of a sugar-coated retelling of Goody's capture and training - incredibly depressing. For example, Goody's 'trademark' move is a finger pose and a big toothy grin. In the wild a grin like this is known as a 'fear grimace': the sight of her teeth a warning that they might be about to used (as Frances' lost thumb can no doubt testify).

Goody thus becomes an excellent argument for animal rights. It's arguable that the ship has sailed on protesting against wild animals in circuses, as at least in the UK the practice has almost ended (I think there are a few camels and zebras still on the road). But there are wider implications for how we treat animals for both entertainment, food and science - with our complicity in their torture arguably less moral than Goody's circus folk as we know chimpanzees are intelligent social beings who feel in much the same way as we do. 

Crucial to all of that is that the audience buys that Roslyn is a chimpanzee. Fortunately, she is amazing as Goody. I can only imagine the endless hours of research that's gone into playing this role accurately, her simian simulcra reaching the lofty heights of Andy Serkis' various mo-cap work. She's so good that it actually gets a bit creepy in moments, her capturing the chimp mindset and physicality so well that she comes across as some scary human-chimp hybrid.

Roslyn's Goody is one of the most striking performances I've seen at the Fringe so far (and I don't expect much to top it), so it's a bit of shame that her script has a couple of shortcomings. For one, there is a tonne of repetition throughout. I get that training a chimpanzee to do something is inherently repetitive, but it feels like we see the same things over and over. Similarly, the characters begin to repeat their motivations in the second half - for example, Frances can't stop talking about how people tease him about having a girl's name. 

Slightly less egregiously, I'm not entirely sure about the later development of Goody suddenly being able to speak English. Granted, a two-hander where one of the characters can only grunt and hoot is a bit dramatically limited, but her sudden skills from English come out of nowhere and go a bit too far in anthropomorphising a believably 'wild' animal on stage.

You're not going to see many plays like Goody at this Fringe. Or anywhere else for that matter. It has faults, but there's a palpable sense of passion to it like this is absolutely the play that the creative team wanted to produce. Its heart is in the right place, it's never boring and I know that Roslyn's performance as Goody is going to be one of my most memorable sights of this year's Fringe.

Goody is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Aug 6-14, 16-28. Tickets here.

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