Spymonkey’s Cooped was first devised in 2001 by the company and director Cal McCrystal (the physical comedy director of One Man, Two Guvnors whose current revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot is at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate) and been in the company’s repertoire ever since. Its freshness as a piece of theatre is maintained by the energy of the cast and there is scope for improvisation in every performance.
Described as a ‘demented pulp Gothic romance’, Cooped concerns a group of actors who are performing a Gothic horror play set in an isolated ancestral homes and populated by collage of caricatures. Elements of parody, professional rivalry and meta-theatricality are intermixed, as in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
The production is staged with a limited array of props and intentionally low production values, an approach which is consistently funny – attention is constantly drawn to the inherent silliness of actors pretending to be in a space they are not: the performers walk up stairs that don’t go anywhere, they somehow manage to stand outside third storey windows, and a voice from a telephone can be heard after the receiver has been hung up. But while Spymonkey’s later shows, Moby Dick and Oedipussy, are based on classic narratives, and have a strong through-story despite some ludicrous deviations, here the storyline is deliberately weak, resulting in a lack of dramatic momentum and a show which doesn’t feel as satisfying as it could.
The cast, however, are superb. We are introduced to the show by the suave Toby Park, who takes on the role of heartthrob heir, Marsden. Petra Massey’s sassy Mandy Bandy downplays her role as ingénue Laura du Lay to begin with but she – and her ‘digestive problem’ – quickly become one of the main sources of humour. She continually demonstrates the delightful inability of her character to bend. Aitor Basauri plays narcissistic actor Alfredo Gravés, a man famous (in Spain and Paraguay) for playing the romantic lead in the high octane telenovela Hospital Tropical. When he is feeling particularly undervalued during the show, he brings on a television so the audience can admire an episode in which he seduces a nun. Stephen Kreiss plays the unpredictable German expressionist Udo Keller, who has an unconcealed hatred for Gravés. The sparring and spitting between the two is hilarious in its relentlessness.
The most memorable sequence of the production concerns the creation of Laura’s ‘happy place’. This escalation of balletic nudity involving all four performers brilliantly demonstrates why Spymonkey are still regarded as a company at the top of their genre.