Monday, 21 January 2013

Theatre review: One Monkey Don't Stop No Show

A middle-class black family in Philadelphia get their lives shaken up when a smart-talking niece from the country comes to live with them. If the basic premise of Don Evans' 1982 play One Monkey Don't Stop No Show has echoes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it's a similarity director Dawn Walton has obviously spotted as well: For the play's UK debut (which toured last year and now starts a second leg at the Tricycle) she's framed it as a 1970s/'80s US sitcom, complete with "ON AIR" announcement, jaunty theme tune and a canned audience cheering the arrival of every new character on stage (although fortunately the laughs come from the real audience.) It's an innovative approach that at times stifles some of the satirical intent behind Evans' comedy but, aided by some game performances, for the most part it gets away with it.

Avery (Karl Collins) is a preacher whose church is makeshift but his home - supervised by his aspirational wife Myra (Jocelyn Jee Esien) - is a gaudy suburban palace. Their son Felix (Isaac Ssebandeke) is a preppy "A" student but hides a secret side, as he's possibly knocked up Li'l Bits (Rochelle Rose,) a girl from the wrong side of town. When Avery's brother, the co-owner of a jazz club, dies, he entrusts the guardianship of his teenage daughter to his business partner Caleb (Clifford Samuel.) But Beverley (Rebecca Scroggs) has her eye on Caleb as something other than a father figure.

Evans has framed a social commentary about middle class black people trying to be something they're not, in a raucous comedy (as well as sitcom the publicity also references Restoration Comedy, and there are some elements of that in the plot) that becomes a more general story about knowing who you are and not trying to be something else. Scroggs is fantastically warm and spiky as the central figure of Beverley, the Southern girl who's a bit more clued in than her pigtails, dungarees and accent let on. She and Samuel spark off each other  well in the romantic comedy element as we cross from the Harrisons' living room to the poky flat above the club (designs by Libby Watson) and the two awkwardly try to share the small space.

The way the play's structured also seems to fit Walton's sitcom framing device, as a mislaid copy of The Joy of Sex kicks off a subplot back at the family home: The illustrations stir the respectable preacher's libido, to the apparent horror of his wife. Esien is reliably funny as the snobbish, malapropizing Myra, and she and Collins have fun rekindling their characters' sex life. Rose's Li'l Bits is endearingly no-nonsense in a smallish role and the cast is completed by Jacqueline Boatswain as her battleaxe mother and later a tarty beautician.

The production's high concept works better than it has any right to but is not an unqualified success - the more serious moments feel out of place, and while the cast sustain a heightened performance style that feels very authentic to the genre, it starts to become very apparent why these sitcoms are 30 minutes long, as two and a half hours of it gets wearying. But it's interesting to see how treating people like a sitcom audience makes them get into the spirit and behave like one - by the end I was hearing the traditional "ooh!" response to characters kissing, and it wasn't coming from the speakers.

One Monkey Don't Stop No Show by Don Evans is booking until the 9th of February at the Tricycle Theatre; then continuing on tour to Colchester, Derby, Hull and Coventry.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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