Monday, 16 July 2007

Fire Coming out of the Monkey's Head

I was once on Radio 4's popular (with people who listen to The Archers but are a bit slow getting up afterwards to switch the wireless off) arts show Front Row, talking about Monkey!, you know.

I was there primarily in my guise of cheap Stewart Maconoid to provide sound bites about the TV show for their review of a stage version of the story (I think in Bristol), but having read a translation of Journey to the West and knowing a tiny amount about the history behind it, I was able to talk a bit about the source material too.
Thus, I'm astonishingly well qualified to pass judgement on the "circus opera" Monkey- Journey to the West, which I saw just before my recent bout of radio madness broke out at the end of June.

Firstly, Manchester's Palace Theatre remains a rotten place to go and see anything if you have above average sized legs and below enormous depth pockets. It's veal crate seating unless you're loaded, and the sight lines in the balcony meant the tops of the animations, some flying effects, and the sub-titles above the orchestra pit could only be seen with considerable effort (with the whole tier moving like a Mexican Wave ripple to properly discern the latest plot point or bit of bizarre imagery).

The music however is great, melodic, dramatic, and satisfactorily Western and Eastern like Pizzicato Five meets Philip Glass (this is how music journalism is done by the way, by claiming something original sounds like a fusion of two pre-existing things, ideally a fusion readers can't easily or usefully imagine even if they actually have any idea how the two fused things sound individually), there are some lovely visuals (and visual jokes), some astonishing acrobatics and the plot and point of the original text is well served alongside the anachronistic zaniness of the TV show.

However, it's too long (in those seats anyway) and its episodic nature and sheer visual splendour early on, means diminishing returns set in over time. By the hour mark, people could be dismembering themselves and having the individual limbs dance on independently and we'd still be feeling we'd seen it or something more impressive earlier on.

More disappointingly, Jamie Hewlett's terrific animation, which plays alongside the action fantastically early on, all but vanishes as the piece progresses, which is a real shame. I hope as this spectacle tours the world they'll find room for more of it later in the show and that some way can be found of marshalling the many and various acrobatic wonders, so that the later scenes of human endeavour make audiences gasp like the early ones.
Hewlett's costume design is fine, though real world physics make his horse less appealing than his design sketch, but what really is weird is to see actors moving and dancing like old frames from his Tank Girl strip- the big straight-legged heel forward steps of our heroes on the march, and the peculiarly angled arm and leg grooving of the Peach Girls in particular, took me straight back to Deadline magazine days, putting a big stupid grin on my face.

Go and see it, but somewhere else, and in a bit, ideally.

Oh and my top bit of pseudo-Maconie punditry on Monkey! for Radio 4?
"Monkey! is very much like Last of the Summer Wine. Monkey is human cunning, ingenuity and desire for betterment, he's like the Foggy/Seymour inventor figure, Pigsy is base human desires and instincts like Compo, and Sandy is a melancholic, penitent engager with the human spirit, world-weary and gentle like Clegg. The only difference is there wasn't a Buddhist monk in Last of the Summer Wine."

I got paid for that.

PS Have any of you out there ever heard Kenneth Williams' audio book reading of Journey to the West? I read a review of it, many years ago (Times Educational Supplement of all places), but I've never actually seen the thing...

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