Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: 'The Monkey' at Theatre503, 8th March 2017

The Monkey reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

The boundary between comedy and horror is so thin you'd have trouble sliding a Rizla through it. Yet it's in precisely this gap that John Stanley's The Monkey sits: a play that on paper sounds like a nightmare, yet in execution is one of the sharpest black comedies I've seen in ages. 

The co-winner of the Synergy Theatre Project's national prison scriptwriting competition (which aims to "harness the energy, instincts and life experiences of ex-prisoners"), The Monkey comes at you with a blizzard of London slang, a taut energy and a fat-free narrative.

We open on the ground floor of a block of Bermondsey flats. A giant middle finger spraypainted on the broken down lift doors tells us all we need to know. This is the home of Dal (Daniel Kendrick), Becks (Danielle Flett) and Thick-Al (George Whitehead). Dal and Becks are petty criminals trying their best to stay one step ahead of a smack habit, their current dealer the stingy Thick-Al (George Whitehead), who very much lives up to his nickname.

Life is complicated by the arrival of Dal and Becks' old friend Tel (Morgan Watkins). With his fitted suit, slicked back hair and shiny shoes he makes a stark contrast to the trackie wearing duo. Tel is doing good at the moment: relatively flush with cash after a bit of burglary and flogging knock-off Juicy Couture. As the three meet, we immediately sense the disconnect between them - namely that Tel appears to be stuck on fast forward while Dal and Becks are in slow motion.

Tel rattles out his verbose dialogue with self-conscious staginess, arching his back and turning his head as if posing for an imaginary photographer. His mind is going in about 12 places at once, careering between imagined slights, business ventures, a drug habit, the distant past, his libido and, ominously, £500 (the titular 'monkey') owed to him by Thick-Al.

This debt smashes the two characters together, leading to a climactic torture sequence explicitly inspired by Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Is it funny to watch a slightly dim man being bound to a chair and mutilated with a switchblade? Are there many yucks in seeing a mentally ill sociopath go completely off his rocker and into a strangle-frenzy? How many laughs can you reasonably get out of a man pleading for his life in front of a vicious lunatic? 

As it turns out, quite a lot. I'm not sure quite how Stanley has pulled this off, but Thick-Al is so unpleasantly stupid, shortsighted and venal that his misery and torture feels thoroughly justified. A decent wodge of this is down to George Whitehead's great performance as a gormless drug dealer, who tries to wriggle out of his situation with the grace, intelligence and ferocity of an earthworm. 

But it's Morgan Watkin's Tel that properly catches the attention. He's a wolf amidst sheep - his frustration with his slow-minded friends making him weirdly relatable. There's a twinge of the classic London gangster to him: his cultural and sartorial pretensions derived from teddyboys (and specifically the Krays). On top of that, he's so intrinsically a Londoner that he may as well be formed out Thames mud and breathed life into by a pearly king. It's tempting to slot him in alongside Guy Ritchie's creations, but there's something powerfully authentic about the character - someone you'd hate to meet in real life but whose presence electrifies the stage.

The Monkey's 95 minutes simply fly by: a vicious little bastard of a play that knows precisely what it wants and achieves it with scary efficiency. There are a couple of rough edges in the staging and the inter-scene heroin-themed music is too on-the-nose, but they're very small flies in very high-quality ointment. Recommended.

The Monkey is at Theatre503 until 18 March. Tickets here.

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