I’ve been to Hartlepool once, and it was the first thing that came up in conversation: “Have you ever heard the story of the monkey who was hanged?” A co-production between Gyre & Gimble and Fuel, The Hartlepool Monkey takes the unsettling local legend of a monkey mistaken for a French spy and turns it into a totally inspiring show that gets just about everything right. At the risk of sounding a bit an X Factor judge, it’s easily my favourite performance of the year.
Actually, it’s the kind of show that makes you start saying stuff like “it was so much better than I thought it was going to be/than it needed to be”, because it’s unashamedly designed to work for the whole family, which tends to make us grown-up theatregoers fall into the trap of expecting something”¦ simpler? Smaller? Sillier? The Hartlepool Monkey definitely makes me nostalgic for my childhood experiences of going to the theatre, but only because it’s been so damn long since I saw something which feels this overwhelmingly exciting to watch. I want to be able to look at five things happening onstage at once. I want to laugh louder and less politely, and I want to cry at the end. I want to see it again.
The thing that strikes most is the brilliant and varied storytelling. Alongside the multi-roling, songs, and cheeky nods to the audience, there are also special touches like the French-English onstage translations, which are a joy to watch and listen to (although the actors work hard to make sure you get most of the action through context, regardless of what language you speak). The set design is bold and textured, and while some of the transitions happen lightning-fast, others are given a more stylised twist; a particular stand-out is a moment of soft, rolling movement underscored by the sound of waves.
The eponymous monkey, Napoleon, a chimpanzee puppet with gloves for feet as well as hands, is handled with amazing dexterity by up to three puppeteers at once, and expertly given voice and breath by Fred Davis. But what feels surprisingly realistic is the weight and strength of the thing; the monkey is just as convincing when it’s grounded as when it’s bouncing and swinging around the set. And it’s this feeling which bleeds through the whole piece.
Because for all the fun and energy and jokes about Middlesbrough, there’s a rock-solid core to The Hartlepool Monkey that makes it so worthy of an immediate second viewing. That core is fear, which starts in those first moments when the cast fret about giving away the ending, and then grows throughout until the townsfolk descend into a hysterical mob. It’s fear of the outside and of the different, fear spurred on by immoral leaders looking for their latest scapegoats, fear that needles away at us all and makes our hearts wary and suspicious.
And one of the best things about The Hartlepool Monkey is that Carl Grose is so deft a writer that he shows how the personal fears of each individual character build to a collective vengeance, while also sewing strong threads of friendship, hope, and true community. It’s an earnest and brilliant thing to watch, and when the corrupt town elders of Hartlepool get their comeuppance in the end, the nostalgia hits me again. The Hartlepool Monkey shows a community ultimately learning from their mistakes and, right now, that feels like such a forgotten, far away thing.
The Hartlepool Monkey was at Exeter Phoenix until November 8th, and is on a UK tour until November 18th. For more details, click here.