Monkey - Journey To The West

Directed by Chen-Shi Zheng, Music by Damon Albarn, Characters and art by Jamie Hewlett
Palace Theatre Manchester, 28 June to 7 July 2007

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, and yes, that includes the bad dubbing and all.

A few years ago I'd seen an adaptation done by Off The Ground Youth Theatre and that was really good, showing off youth theatre at its finest. In many ways that was also a benchmark to compare the 29 June performance I went to see to. This production however promised that it'd be closer to how the book was, and indeed with a mix of action, acrobats and circus style acts, all done in a supposed Chinese Opera style it was going to be an intriguing night ahead to see just how it was pulled off.

The first thing to note is that the production is all in Mandarin, with English subtitles. The subtitles are projected on to the stage near the front, so that everyone can see them with the action going one. From the opening act it was clear to see that the subtitles were quite reminiscent of Monkey the TV show (which Hewlett himself has admitted he's inspired by) because the English wasn't exactly grammatical correct. And, perhaps annoyingly for some, the subtitles didn't actually appear in the right time with the words or the singing. For diehards like me, this harked back to the TV show, but I guess in a stage light, some people could get very annoyed.

One other thing you'll notice is just how acrobatic the whole thing is. From the initial burst of monkeys climbing these bamboo trees with Monkey himself bounding around and showing off his moves, it's a full on musical and acrobatic extravaganza. Indeed when Monkey is fighting and bounding around, there's plenty of moving around, dodging, and bounding about the stage rather manically. And throughout the show, there's lots of acrobatics, lots of martial arts, and plenty of gymnastic trickery too. Of course I could just about see the wires holding Monkey's character when he was floating around the place, to imitate his floating on his cloud, but it worked very well.

Indeed, many moments that I saw in the TV series and in the book were all there, such as when Monkey decides to eat all the peaches in the Peach Garden, and just scoffs them all, fighting off anyone who dares get in his way. It's in this scene that you see that this particular Monkey has an arrogance and a defiance that seems very cocky, and indeed Mancunian. I don't know if that was the intention but it came across that way, and came across pretty well too to be honest. Indeed, when it came to the Buddha's hand and how it just dumps Monkey from heaven and imprisons him, it made me want to watch the DVDs of Monkey there and then. Indeed it was spectacularly staged.

Other moments that are in the play that gave me flashbacks to the series is an episode where the skeleton demon takes a form of other people to trick the others into thinking they're offering food, lodging and so on. Only Monkey can tell that they are of course demons and proceeds to give them a good bashing about with his staff (beautiful moment when the animated staff projected on stage goes small enough and then Monkey picks up a real one from the stage), no one believes him until they realise when they're in trouble that he was of course right. In the stage production, it's a skeleton demon, in the TV series, they're yellow, blue and red demons (from the episode "Even Monsters Can Be People") but the same plot and works just as well.

Indeed does the whole episode where they have to try and cross a lot of mountains with hot lava, and the only way that they can get across is by finding a special fan which will blow the hot lava cold. Of course this means plenty of action and combat as Monkey uses his unique powers (ahem) to convince the goddesses that they need the fan. Of course, they give him a duff one at first but that doesn't fool Monkey (after all kids, he is great sage, equal of heaven you know!) and off he goes to sort it all out.

As for the characters themselves, down to a tee. Interestingly here they've done the same as the TV series in that Tripitaka (a boy priest) is played by a woman instead. And it works just as well, not least when she's chanting the infamous headache mantra (yes it's here too) and generally being the gentle and kind priest on the whole, her mannerisms are spot on. Pigsy and Sandy are no slouches on, and they must be praised for their particular skill with their weapons of combat (notably Pigsy's muck rake) as they bound around the stage locked in combat and looking very powerful and battling away. Monkey is absolutely brilliant, the mannerism is just right for him (including scratching of the balls for some strange reason) and of course the arrogant self-confidence just works so well.

Jamie Hewlett's costume design and animation does deserve praise too, it's really dark looking but also conveys the right atmosphere, and the animated sequences in the opening parts set the story nicely and cleverly allow the stages to be changed behind the curtain, but doesn't disrupt the flow of the whole thing, which was very pleasing to see for me. Notably the animation works well when the egg is hatching at the beginning, I was thinking to myself "the nature of Monkey was irrepresssible!" at that point of course, but the animation conveyed it spot on without needing expensive stage props to do so.

The music by Damon Albarn really does have that touch of mysticalism brought together with a slight Western influence, but doesn't detract one bit and sets the scene very nicely by having just the needed amount of tension, drama and suspense. Indeed during some of the fight sequences it all works really well to bring you that sort of soundtrack that reminded of me how bloody good Lalo Schifrin's "Enter The Dragon" score is - no mean feat I can tell you. The sheer amount of musicians under the stage bringing together the soundtrack was mind boggling on the eye, plenty of strings and orchestration played lushly together, even plenty of oriental sounds too.

Everything held well together and at two hours (no interval, note, so I suggest a visit to the toilet before it starts just in case) it was at about the right pace and had the sense of feeling that brought back memories for me of the old TV series. It also showcased the finest Chinese acrobats and martial artists doing their thing, and doing it well - some fo the combat sequences are absolutely first class and will really make you wonder just how they do it without anyone getting injury. And as for those gymnastic spider women in one scene, how they hang on and make the silk backgrounds look so pretty is just sublime, and the fire twirlers as volcano warriors? Inspired!

I could go on and on, but in short, if you want to do something different, and enjoy a trip to the theatre, do put this on your "must see" list. It's a loving tribute to both the book and the TV series, and I'm sure that if you've read or seen either you'll love it to bits. If you haven't, go and watch this, then read the book. I'm sure you'll be enlightened. It'll tour the world after Manchester, so if it hits your town, go and be treated to a sumptuous feast, you'll be glad you did.

Warren's rating: 92%