The phrase ‘lost classic’ is often enough to strike fear into any theatre critic. Often there is a reason these plays have been sitting on the shelf but just occasionally that cynicism is unfounded and the discovery turns out to be a true gem.
Such is the case with Eclipse Theatre Company’s vivid reclaiming of Don Evans’ 1980 comedy One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.
One the face of it this is your typical run-of-the-mill comedy of manners, a preacher and his wife try to climb the social ladder in middle-class Philadelphia – a situation found in countless comedies across the centuries. Where Evans’ script plays the trump card, however, is the twisting of the expected norms.
The Averys are a black family in a predominantly white suburb, though the culture clash is with other sectors of the black community. The Reverend, though outwardly preaching fire and brimstone, is tormented by sexual frustration, and the women are not as naïve as first appear. Sparks fly as repressed emotions are finally unleashed to great comic effect.
Evans’ script works well and deserves revisiting on its own merit but what makes this production truly fly is Dawn Walton’s inspired decision to stage the entire production as an episode of a sitcom. Think The Cosby Show meets Sheridan’s The Rivals and you get the idea. The staging, complete with TV pantograph lighting, on-air signs and canned laughter creates a perfect environment for the comedy to unfold. The concept somehow makes the over-the-top heightened comedy seem conversely real and allows room for the on-form cast to create some wonderfully vivid characters.
Jocelyn Jee Esien’s upwardly aspiring Myra is a pure delight, awfully snobbish despite her tendency to drop in inappropriate Malapropisms and cod French, each movement and inflection a masterclass in how to create a believable comedy creation. There is also fine work from Roger Griffiths’ repressed Avery, Issac Ssebandeke as wayward son, Felix, and Daniel Francis as rebel of the family, Caleb.
Despite the men’s best intentions it is, however, the women who hold the upper hand. Alongside Esien’s tour de force performance there are strong performances from Jacqueline Boatswain in the dual roles of Mozelle and Mrs Caldwell, and Michelle Asante as Felix’s love interest, L’il Bits. Rivalling Esien’s claim on top honours, however, is Ayesha Antoine’ Beverley, transforming from not so innocent country girl into a strong independent woman, able to steer her own fortune.
Watson’s direction plays the comedy hard and fast and it suits the piece well, building up the energy but counterpointing this with well-observed monologues that give a more rounded view of these vivid characters.
Libby Watson’s set is a visual treat, highly detailed and contrasting the ostentatious opulence of the Averys with the slightly more practical, if run-down, home of Caleb.
A true test of any radical staging of a work is the consideration if it seems radical when watching or perfectly normal and it’s testament to Eclipse’s attention to detail that it is difficult now to imagine One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show being staged in any other manner. Sparkling dialogue, well drawn characters, spirited direction and some of the finest comedy performances you will see this year make this show one that you’d want to see repeated and repeated.
It is hard to see anything stopping this fine show.