The Hartlepool Monkey at Stratford Circus Arts Centre
The story of the Hartlepool Monkey is a curiously tragic farce. For those unfamiliar with the tale, legend has it that a monkey became shipwrecked in Hartlepool during the Napoleonic wars. The townspeople believed the animal to be a French sailor, put him on trial and had him hanged. To this day, Hartlepudlians are known as “Monkey Hangers”.
Gyre and Gimble’s staging of The Hartlepool Monkey aspires towards being a parable for Brexit Britain but this adaptation isn’t totally seaworthy. The cruel fate of the monkey at the hands of the braying townspeople is a straightforward allegory for the rise of xenophobia and racist hate-crimes. Greedy, megalomaniac, town elders exploit small business owners – who suffer in literally crippling debt, unable to afford adequate healthcare for a son with a withered lung. Blame is transferred from the town authority to neighbouring counties, other authority figures and, the best scapegoat of all, the sighting of a French ship.
It is interesting to note – though not made explicit in the play – that 70% of Hartlepool voted to leave the European Union last year. This is not a statistic that is made explicit in this production, which is set firmly in the early 19th century, but the suspicion lingers throughout. One wonders if Gyre and Gimble had simply articulated the timely inspiration behind this revival of this historic fable, it may have saved the show from being undermined by its own sneering tone of condescension.
This is not to say that the theatre-makers should have anticipated this and presented a reasoned and empathetic debate on the state of European politics, but that the tale could have been told with much more nuance.
The moments of joy and imaginative storytelling are dreamlike, but they are too few and far between. The puppetry of the monkey is a marvellous spectacle, however, in its dominance it masks the other talents of this cast. Though the performers are talented musicians, for example, we are only treated to a few outbursts of melody, which fail to stand out amongst a dirge-like recitation of the narrative. If only the direction had decided to diversify the means of storytelling throughout, the hour-and-a-half running time would have felt a lot shorter.
“Grown-up” children’s shows can carry a devastatingly powerful whimsy. The Hartlepool Monkey misses the mark and condescends more than it captivates.
Photo: Dan Tsantilis
The Hartlepool Monkey is at Stratford Circus Arts Centre from 19th until 30th September 2017 before touring the UK. For further information or to book visit the tour website here.