Moby Dick, Lyric Hammersmith, London
Friday 30 April 2010
"Call me Ishmael" goes the famous opening line of Moby Dick. "Call me a taxi," I muttered under my breath. To be fair, it gets better, as the quartet of performers in Spymonkey warm to their task of doing a sort of Marx Brothers meets Hellzapoppin' job on Herman Melville's epic, the joke being, of course, that the whale is a rubber duck and Captain Ahab's a delusional idiot.
Undercutting big stories with subversive mime and pratfalls runs deep as a theatrical sub-genre, making the most of minimal resources and the least of the author's intentions. The National Theatre of Brent (Patrick Barlow and Jim Broadbent) probably started it, and The 39 Steps on Broadway currently proves its commercial viability.
But Spymonkey are threatening to break the mould by starting small and going large-scale: slapstick vaudeville segues into musical numbers of mixed quality, and a meaningless finale of Mike Batt's "Bright Eyes" in which the quartet are joined on stage by the massed ranks of an amateur choir.
Jos Houben's production can't make that leap into epic grandeur if the whole point is one of fiddling about to be funny. Although Graeme Gilmour's design of a foreshortened poop deck fitted out with canvas sails and rigging is fairly lavish for such a minimal approach, Ahab's constant refrain is one of having half a leg, half a crew and half a ship; his whalebone stump does betray cost-cutting, but the luminous underwater ballet is a brief joy before the narrative slump.
Even doing what they do best, Spymonkey never know when enough is enough, already: falling over means falling over till laughter freezes in one's throat; a sailor's hornpipe that turns into an odd man out baring his bum and mooning round the stage on castors is extended as if it were the finale to 42nd Street; and a semen-seeking wooden figurehead wishing she were fecund if only for a second makes censorious puritans of us all.
To 1 May (08712 211 722; Lyric.co.uk)
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