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Monkey! For Ages 9 to 90
by Lizzie Loveridge

It's time to play!  
--- Monkey

Monkey! - A Fable From China is the holiday production at The Young Vic directed by Mick Gordon and written by Colin Teevan, two men who are now in the employ of the Royal National Theatre to help rejuvenate that institution. Monkey! is based on a Chinese story, a religious tale of a journey on the path to enlightenment. However, what I came away with after two hours at the Young Vic that night was not a step on the road to understanding Buddhism but a sense of sheer enjoyment at an exuberant and very entertaining production.

The unusual stars of this production are Alasdair Monteith's Wu Shu warriors whose acrobatic, martial artistry is breathtaking. Wu Shu literally means military arts and combines several forms of martial arts including Kung Fu and T'ai Chi and encompasses an Eastern philosophy so that the warrior has mental strength as well as physical prowess. Dick Bird's set at the Young Vic's "in the round" space is a diagonal cross walkway, surrounding a central square bringing the audience right into the action. Before the show even starts there is the anticipation of an exciting and imaginative stage with three dimensional clouds painted with Chinese characters, huge paper fish hanging menacingly and the walls and floor and red carpet all featuring hieroglyphics and Chinese writing.

The story is of Monkey (the charismatic Elliot Levey), a mischievous, magical Monkey King who defies the gods and is imprisoned under a stone mountain by Buddha ( a stately Aicha Kossoko). The condition of his release is that he should help the monk, Tripitaka (the luminous Inika Leigh Wright) on a journey to find the sacred scriptures. At every turn demons waylay the travellers who find Pigsy (a porcine Jan Knightley) and Sandi (a fishy Jason Thorpe) to continue with them on the journey which will be the path to redemption and enlightenment. An interesting conflict is that between Tripitaka's essential pacifism and Monkey's fighting aggression when under attack from the enemy.

Elliott Levey's Monkey is a resourceful fighter but has a monkey's vulgarity, inclined to a less sophisticated approach than that of the holy Tripitaka. Inika Leigh Wright as the monk has a delicacy but can be steely in her handling of her fellow travellers and of course her commitment to her holy purpose.

The lighting is highly stated and dramatic and the fight choreography is outstanding. The encounter with the Ninjas is the most exciting of the many adventures.

Mick Gordon's ambitious production moves at a thundering pace, continually enlivened by the appearance of fantastic monsters or a ride in the cloud chariots as well as the stick twirling, kick boxing acrobatics or the use of trapeze wires to raise the characters. The music is recorded and has an Eastern flavour but is much more interesting to the Western ear than the gong and xylophone variety.

There are many other imaginative staging touches. The costumes have been carefully designed to reflect character. Yama, Queen of Death (Aicha Kossoko) wears a fantastic black costume topped by a skull head dress and is motor cycled booted, but as Buddha, her flowing simple gown and hat are plain yellow. Pigsy's outfit is as sparsely hairy and wrinkled as a grey Vietnamese pot bellied pig with boar's teeth on his lower lip.

Colin Teevan's script is fun and accessible with Monkey's "I''s time to play!" refrain, but this is not a play where you are going to learn much about Buddhism or Eastern philosophy. The gruesome throwing up of bloodied human bones in the cannibal scene prompts the suggestion to bring only childre at least nine years old and over. However, the programme is kid-friendly with lots of stickers plus fortune cookies with sayings from the show's characters. Sometimes going to a children's show means that I try to enjoy it for the sake of the children. In the case of Monkey!, I had just as good a time as they did.
Written Colin Teevan based on the stories of Sun Wu-k'ung
Directed by Mick Gordon

With: Don Klass, Jan Knightley, Aicha Kossoko, Elliot Levey, Sang Lui, Jason Thorpe, Andrew Wareham, Inika Leigh Wright, Tom Wu
Design: Dick Bird
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Sound: Crispian Covell
Music by Kila
Wu Shu Choreography: Alasdair Monteith
Movement director/Associate Director: Dan O'Neill
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 19th January 2002 and then on tour to Huddersfield, Oxford, Liverpool, Brighton and Chester until 23rd Mrch 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on the 13th December 2001 performance at the The Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1
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