Manchester Theatre Awards

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The Hartlepool Monkey

Carl Grose
Fuel, in association with Stratford Circus Arts Centre, presents Gyre & Gimble's The Hartlepool Monkey
Lowry
03 November 2017 to 04 November 2017

Anyone who ever visited Hartlepool will know the tale of the Hartlepool Monkey.

Legend has it, during the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, a French ship got caught up in a storm off the north-eastern coastal town. The ship’s mascot, a monkey, was the only one to survive the wreckage. The people of the town had never seen a monkey before or a French man. Mistaking its oobedo for a foreign language, they put the animal on trial, convicted him of being a French spy and hanged him on the beach.  

How is hanging a monkey pertinent to our times? As Gyre & Gimble’s new production shows us, more than we may think.

In recent years the people of Hartlepool have embraced the monkey as part of their heritage. But for many years the story was used by nearby towns to mock their neighbours – the people of Hartlepool are so stupid they hanged a monkey they thought was a French invader.

Given the same circumstances, how many of us would do the same? In 2017, we may not be hanging monkeys on the beach, but when it comes to fear of the unknown, how much has human nature changed in the last 200 years?

It is a parable for our times. Ordinary people poor and hungry, struggling to make a living, while the people in power live off their good will and squander the town’s funds. As the town’s quack doctor telling confides, we are ‘using unwelcome strangers to divert from our problem’.

Writer, Carl Grose adds a side-story of a young girl washed ashore with the monkey. She’s befriended and protected by a young boy who doesn’t have the same learned fears of the adults around him.

The story is beautifully told by a strong ensemble cast, using a mix of myth and music. There is one basic set which converts swiftly from the deck of a ship, to the local ale house, beach and the town. Centre stage of course is the cute chimpanzee, amazing puppetry from Gyre & Gimble, the original puppeteers on War Horse.

It’s an entertaining hour-and-a-half, that will keep you thinking for much longer.

Reviewer: Carmel Thomason

Comments

Comment by David Cunningham

At the opening of the The Hartlepool Monkey the cast step out of character to raise the question that hangs over the play: how do they make it interesting when everybody already knows the ending? Come to that how to you tell such a ridiculous tale without it just becoming silly? Author Carl Grose expands and enriches the legend so that it reflects the current political confusion in contemporary society.

Clemence ( Rebecca Collingwood), an orphan of the war, stows away on the French ship and befriends the ship’s mascot . A storm shipwrecks the pair in Hartlepool giving Clemence, who just happens to have access to a lot of gunpowder, the chance to take revenge for her late parents. But paranoia is rife in Hartlepool where the town officials divert attention from their corruption by stirring up hatred of the French. Residents are becoming increasingly fed up and are suggesting the unthinkable: forming a union with neighbouring communities.

The Hartlepool Monkey is a plea for tolerance and a condemnation of xenophobia with just a hint of sour grapes about the Brexit vote. But it is expressed in a boisterous, hilarious manner. For all his promotion of tolerance Carl Grose stuffs his script with great jokes where the humour comes from mispronunciation  of words or accents ( ‘town meeting ‘ becomes ‘tan meting’ ), gender confusion or decent but dumb characters who do not seem to notice that they are helping someone stack explosives in plain view.

The title character is a life-size puppet named ‘Napoleon’ designed by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olle who also direct. Napoleon is far from a lovable character and, in a play that successfully moves from comedy to a hint of horror and thriller, adds an undertone of almost supernatural menace. In a play where failure to communicate is a key theme, there is a powerful moment where reality shifts and Napoleon’s plaintive cries translate into English. Caldwell and Olle constantly challenge the expectations of the audience with the cast stepping out of character or shifting from high drama to low comedy. It could easily become cynically knowing but the sheer enthusiasm of the cast brings a freshness that ensures the play remains cheeky but never smug.

The Hartlepool Monkey has serious points to make about how populism can drift into mob rule, the need to avoid judging others and the benefits of working together. But the producers refuse to become ponderous. At a key dramatic moment when the play is drifting close to a lecture a cast member realises that she has to change into a different character and interrupts the speech.

The seven member cast throw themselves into the play singing merry sea shanties, playing multiple characters and milking each joke for all it is worth. Rebecca Collingwood is a high-energy joy strutting with indignation around the stage and babbling in outraged French.

The Hartlepool Monkey is a great reminder that the best way to make serious points is to be very funny.