REVIEW: THE MONKEY (Theatre 503) ★★★★

The Monkey is a dark comedy featuring four characters each of whom are habitual small time London criminals and heroine addicts. These are not addicts as normally portrayed. They do not live in squalor exactly and are quite content with their lot. They manage to steal and deal enough to live relatively comfortably. Think Friends gone wrong rather than Train Spotting.

Darren, played by Daniel Kendrick, and Rebecca, played by Danielle Flett, are a pair of small time thieves who have worked together for some time, out every day, looking for the odd opportunity to come along, in crowded railway stations, airports and such like. They are not well off but making a living wage. They are friends and colleagues in crime but are not a couple. They live in the same flat in a drab Council owned tower block in the Bermondsey area of London. Rebecca has an ambition to give up crime, leave Bermondsey and make a new life in the quiet seaside town of Bournemouth. Darren gently mocks her boring sounding ambition.

Alan, or Thick-Al as he is known, played by George Whitehead, lives in his own apartment in the same tower block. He is a drug dealer in a lazy sort of way. He is also foolish and foolhardy in the extreme. He has lied to Terry in order to borrow five hundred pounds from him (in East End parlance a Monkey) and Terry wants it back. Terry is not the kind of person that you mess with. Someone really ought to convince Thick-Al that this is so, but he won’t be told and doesn’t have the money anyway. As Thick-Al asks at one point, “‘E ain’t gonna kill me for a Monkey, is e?” Oh dear!

Terry, played by Morgan Watkins, is a scary character. He used to hear “voices”, though now his mental health has improved to the point where they are only whispers. He claims that he can now control his temper, though there is no sign of this being true. He is unpredictable and violent. He scares the other three and his return is not welcome, but no one dares to tell him. Terry always wears sharp suits, shirts and ties which somehow make him seem all the more menacing. Terry has returned because he wants his money back from Thick-Al but Thick-Al seems incapable of understanding what danger he is in. You feel like shaking some sense into him.

Terry, Alan, Rebecca and Darren had all lived in the tower block together but Terry had struck out some time before and moved up market to his uncle’s home in Deptford and was making lots of money selling fake and stolen goods.

The entire play is written in deep London slang interspersed with Cockney rhyming slang. Perhaps the occasional captioned performance might be a good suggestion for out-of-towners.

The Monkey is funny but, in places, violent. The language is coarse in the extreme. There is some violence and even more threats of violence. Not violence at a Shakespearean levels, more psychological than actual. Also there are graphic scenes of drug use which are quite harrowing in their normality.

The whole cast are excellent and perfectly portray a criminal underworld in which drugs and theft are a normal way of life. Within this criminal fraternity, there are basically people with the same variation of character traits that you would find anywhere. Silly irresponsible Alan, somewhat scary, aggressive Terry, sensible, normal Darren and kindly Rebecca with her everyday aspirations.

The Monkey’ is part of Theatre 503‘s Homecomings, a festival of new plays by prisoners and ex-prisoners. It is very clever and well written. Very reminiscent of Harold Pinter plays with a central, threatening character casting fear over everyone else and it is none the worse for that comparison.

I would heartedly recommend a trip to Battersea to catch this excellent play. It is is not a long play but is bursting with energy and wit. Well worth a visit but strictly for adults only.

Reviewed by Graham Archer
Photo: Simon Annand

The Monkey plays at Theatre 503 until 17 March 2017