There’s a monkey swinging off the monkey bars and a teenage crocodile swishing its tail round the swings in Metta Theatre’s utterly irresistible family show. A free outdoor performance touring the playgrounds of Exeter, Cornwall, London and Bath, Monkey & Crocodile is an enchanting mix of music, circus skills, story-telling and apples.
Basing her script on traditional folktale ‘The Monkey’s Heart’ (Aarne-Thompson 91, if you want to know) director Poppy Burton-Morgan has transformed the story into a tale of romance as well as friendship, a coming of age yarn with a whisper of Romeo and Juliet. The two households here are the Monkey’s apple tree, where she larks about munching apples all day, and the Crocodile’s lair, where he lives under the claw of his jealous and greedy mother.
Told in simple, witty language (the crocodile’s embarrassed to admit he still lives with his mum) the characters emerge from their brilliant physicality. It’s hard to know where Burton-Morgan’s work ends and choreographer Layla Rosa’s begins, but both have done a superb job in creating two such distinct and likeable characters: the children in the audience were as delighted by the Crocodile’s moonwalking shuffle as they were by the Monkey’s acrobatics. Crucially, the circus skills are woven smoothly into the narrative, intrinsic to the storytelling rather than tacked on top of it.
Credit must also go Rosie Rowlands and Philip Whiteman, who create a genuinely touching partnership out of their incongruous characters, and whose physical embodiment of them is absolute and unflagging. Whiteman is particularly engaging, constantly changing his style of movement while still reflecting the slinky swooshing of Croc’s tail. Shirley Darroch makes for a great villain in the Roald Dahl mould as Crocodile’s Mother, scrudging along on her tricycle and blasting Jessica Dannheisser’s harrumphing score from her trumpet.
It’s a cliché of successful children’s theatre to describe the young spectators as ‘spellbound’ or ‘entranced’, here they’re curious and playful instead, which is far more fun. By creating their jungle in the playground, Metta Theatre bring their story into child territory, and children continue to wander and interact as the action plays out. Toddlers toddle across the stage and gaze quizzically up at the friendly monkey, munching on the apples she throws down to them, and they retreat in fear from the gurning Crocodile’s Mother. At the edges of the playground, passing families, couples and even a few dozy afternoon drunks stop by to see what all the fuss is about, and when they stop they often stay till the end. It gives the show a sense of community and generosity that’s genuinely heartening. It’s a brief trip into the jungle, but one well worth making. You’d have to be a right old grumpy crocodile not to leave with a smile on your face.