One Monkey Don't Stop No Show, Tricycle Theatre, London
Friday 18 January 2013
They don't make 'em like this any more - well, not quite. Written in 1982 by African-American dramatist Don Evans, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show whisks us back to the 1970s and takes a mischievously comic look at the then prevailing attitudes to ethnicity, class and sexual politics.
The play – billed a bit optimistically as The Cosby Show meets Restoration Comedy – is given its belated UK premiere now by Eclipse Theatre in a production that ebulliently captures its wacky, high-spirited irreverence.
Director Dawn Walton heightens the period flavour of the piece and the tongue-in-cheek quality of the writing by staging it as if it were the live recording of a 1970s-style TV sitcom in front of a studio audience, replete with “On Air” signs and canned applause entrances. Clipping the show within ironic quote marks could have suggested a slight lack of trust in the material; instead, it allows the fine cast to play their parts with a lovely camped-up fervour.
The black middle-class family of preacher Avery Harrison are desperate to be seen as models of propriety in their white Philadelphia suburb. But the cracks start to show when the preppy, libidinally frustrated son Felix (Isaac Ssebandeke) smuggles in a copy of The Joys of Sex. “Lord, I wish I was white so I could faint,” declares Jocelyn Jee Esien's hilarious matriarch Myra, an amiable monster of draconian jumped-up snobbery with her genteel malapropisms, bridge club and undisguised prejudice against “low-life Negroes”.
So she's not best pleased that the street-smart, sexy, crap-cutting Caleb (Clifford Samuel) has been made the ward of her young niece Beverley who is newly arrived from the Southern backwoods and (as Rebecca Scroggs's performance attractively underlines) a good deal smarter and more subversive than the dungarees and plaits suggest.
Interspersed with direct-to-audience monologues, the play is not, by any stretch, a lost classic. But the broad (sometimes crude) comedy keeps offering sharp and amusing perspectives on the tugs and contradictions between roots and aspiration. For example: tired of being called a “bourgie niggah” by his working-class, possibly pregnant girlfriend, the stringy little Felix proposes to drop out of his destined future as a dentistry student and rediscover his funky ancestral soul – only to meet with the outraged riposte “I said I didn't like being with 'em. I ain't say I didn't want to be one myself”.
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