Monkey - The Play

Adapted by Daniel Cambridge for Off The Ground Youth Theatre
Performed at Ness Botanic Gardens, near Neston, Wirral 3rd-5th July 2003

Monkey has long been one of my favourite TV shows, and its mix of story telling, action and bad dubbing made it a cult hit in the UK. Of course, in part this is down to the fact it's based on an original novel by Wu Cheng En, which tells the tale of a holy priest gathering the scriptures, but also down to the way the Japanese recreated the story for the TV series.

Off The Ground Youth Theatre have been around for eight years or so, producing quality youth theatre for youngsters to be really involved in the essence of theatre: the performance, the enthusiasm, the teamwork, the togetherness. Quite often they do plays at outdoor venues and Ness Botanical Gardens, just near Neston on the Wirral is one of the venues they use. It's not hard to see why as just to the right of the tea room there is a perfect outdoor setting for a stage, with a couple of bushes providing the backdrop with enough gap for the actors to go in and out of effortlessly.

To adapt a quite deep Chinese novel and make it suitable viewing would be difficult, so in essence the producers at Off The Ground realised by keeping in spirit with the story, but adding the overall flavour of the Monkey TV series would perhaps work wonders. And, I'm very pleased to report that it has done.

At the start, the players are introduced with suitably set background music, explaining the fact there was an egg and how the forces caused it to hatch and produce a stone monkey (yes, just like the TV series!) and when the egg hatched all the actors around the egg moved away to produce the stone monkey from within. This in fact is a recurring theme, some of the actors would form a seamless backdrop to proceedings if they weren't in that setting them, and it really works. It then explains how an ancient ape race was looking for somewhere to go, and how one of them became brave enough to go through the waterfall and find what was within (provided he was made their king of course). That was Monkey then, and soon he wished to seek the path to enlightenment.

The story pretty much follows the book and series well, and explains in detail how Monkey became powerful, and a lot of the first half deals with how eventually Monkey would be banished under a rock for some five hundred years, and how he had to look after the peach garden but instead eat all the peaches etc. For anyone who's seen the first episode of Monkey, this is all familiar territory of course, but it's acted out really well getting all involved. For example, when the scenes are done with the peach trees where first Monkey eats them all then the Queen of Heaven cannot find any later, most of the actors branch well together to form three peach trees, with branches of their hands providing the fruit (real peaches were used here, I should add) and worked superbly. It also shows you how Sandy and Pigsy were banished (again, episode one is a useful reference point) and deals with them in a professional, well-paced manner.

The second half explains further about the quest, and how Tripitaka was summoned to be the priest to fetch the scriptures. In a neat touch, here too they've cast a female playing the boy priest, which somehow adds a little bit to the sheer authenticity of the whole thing and is very good at telling Monkey off. Initially when she meets Monkey he warns her of a dragon - and another nice touch here is that the many actors play the large dragon, roaming around the place. It's a nice use of a large prop and really sets the scene well as Monkey does his usual battling style. And then they even get the headache sutra in with Monkey writhing around in agony, which really makes the scene workable.

It then deals with finding Pigsy and Sandy and how they join the quest, and also then how demons try and trap Tripitaka, a fair bit of it reminds us of the Monkey episode Even Monsters Can Be People where innocent looking young girls and old ladies are tricking the others, but not Monkey, who realises they are demons and that Tripitaka is in danger - too late for the others to believe him though, as Tripitaka is captured. Monkey however locates the others and the three save the day in spectacular fashion, with a lot of combat involved and almost everyone taking part in that combat. Then Tripitaka realises the demons are her own and she is in control of them, and they journey on and unlike the TV series but like the book, they find the scriptures and it's all explained at just the right amount of seriousness but not to detract too deeply from the rest of the story.

That's how it surmises as a play here, but does it work? Without doubt, a most qualified yes. The combat scenes throughout are really well choreographed, and it's testament to the whole company how the scenes look pretty realistic and no one is actually hurt in them, and there's a bit of the Matrix inspiration also creeping in with some really nifty slow motion movements to add to the modern take. At first I wasn't sure about this, but as the play got going it really worked so you could see how the combat of each fight evolves and how it all works. What I also liked was the fact that in the scene where the three heroes fight Tripitaka's demons, it's a massive free for all that reminds me of the massive fight scene in Enter The Dragon. If you've ever seen that classic film, you'll marvel at how well it was done. Well, definitely more of the same here. It's a really good effort to make it look like a full-scale battle is going on and looks and feels realistic.

The acting is also top notch: Matt Thompson, who plays Monkey, has just the right amount of stage presence and cockiness that Monkey himself has to blend the part well. His combat scenes are given the right amount of enthusiasm and bravado, and he speaks with enough authority and gusto to make the role his own. Ably supported by Natalie Quatermass (Tripitaka), Neal Lewis (Pigsy) and Jaya Chandna (Sandy) in their own way, the four gel together on stage, and that's a sign that not only does it work, but also they're all enjoying the roles that they have. I could go on about all the others too but suffice to say they all had their own roles to play and carried them off with a lot of energy and passion that really projected itself to the viewer in the right way.

The play also had many other neat touches, like how it showed Monkey changing into various forms, and the way the actors got together, effectively but cleverly hiding the change and then revealing the changed object did the job well. The additional larger props, such as the head of Yama, King of the Dead, really added a presence and bearing to the stage and made it their own.

The biggest compliment I can give is that many professional full time theatres would have been hard pushed to match the sheer energy, passion, enthusiasm and pure enjoyment that all involved projected from the open air stage gave to us as an audience. They kept everyone interested and on their toes, and with the backing of a contemporary soundtrack (and even the Monkey TV series theme tune, too, a very nice addition) it flowed perfectly and made a two hour play seem to pass by very quickly.

If you get chance to see Off The Ground Youth Theatre, whether it be this production or any of the others that they are due to put on, make the effort and go and see them - you'll find it well worth your while.

Warren's rating: 91%