Monkey: Journey to the West, The 02, London

Loudly, crassly, catchee monkey
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The Independent Culture

Wagner had a word for his ideal notion of music theatre, synthesising all the arts. He called it Gesamtkunstwerk or "total artwork". Now I'm just wondering what the Wagnerian term is for "total cack". Monkey: Journey to the West – the so-called opera/spectacular with a score by Damon Albarn (of Blur) – arrives at the 02 trailing clouds of glory and its own 2,400-seat tent. Having opened amid huge hype at the Manchester International Festival 07, alas this show already looks like hackneyed tourist tat.

OK, if it's multimedia you want, you sure get that dished up here. The old Chinese saga about the simian warrior and his pilgrimage – accompanying the boy-priest Tripitaka and his more carnal buddies, Pigsy and Sandy – is staged with set design and projected cartoon animations by Jamie Hewlett (of Gorillaz). The cast is a troupe of martial artists, Chinese State Circus-style acrobats, contortionists and aerialists, some of whom also sing a bit.

The problem is none of this hangs together. There are a few wizard moments with whirring staves and chains, and with Monkey (Cao Jiangtao in a yellow tracksuit and tail) flying into the wings on wires. Really, though, this is a poor cousin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with disappointing special effects.

Blown up to cinema-size, Hewlett's cartoons look cheesy rather than cool. The fact that his principal set is a lumpen rock resembling cheap polystyrene doesn't help. The curtain closes between episodes, and you expect a snazzy scene change, but the rock has just been lugged five feet to the left. Ooo, Monkey magic!

Meanwhile, writer-director Chen Shi-Zheng has no grasp whatsoever of narrative momentum, making a Pigsy's ear of the storyline. The dialogue is bewilderingly scrappy (performed in Mandarin with English surtitles). One second, the Dragon King of the Eastern Seas, who resembles a giant shrimp, is rebuking Monkey for disturbing the peace. The next, he is lavishing magic weapons upon him, as if the needle on the record has jumped. Monkey, waddling around like a brattish toddler, manages to be completely charmless.

For sure, Albarn has mastered oriental modes, mixing electronica and ethnic instruments, and some of his chants and chimes might be haunting. But we're on the road to no-where musically, going round in exasperating small circles. As for the circus routines, please tell me the quest for Nirvana doesn't really end in heaven with a 30ft blue Buddha and a chorus-line of ladies in luminous pink Lycra, spinning plates. Gesamt-scheisse.

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