One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show reminds us how much great theatre is not on the radar of most theatre-goers. Written in 1982 by Don Evans (died 2003), it is a wonderfully zestful play, wackily intelligent and very funny, yet I had never heard of play or writer before. It’s described in the publicity as a “lost American classic”, but I suspect that in the UK it never appeared in the first place.
Fortunately this production by Eclipse Theatre and Sheffield Theatres matches the exuberance and imagination of the play. Trawling the internet for information, I came across a review of a 2007 Houston revival which contained constant reference to television sit-coms. At Sheffield director Dawn Walton takes it one stage further: it is actually presented as the recording of a television programme, with ON AIR signs, canned applause and occasional appearances by the floor manager. What seems at first an unnecessary conceit establishes the style of the production – wildly energetic, engagingly over-the-top, a series of nicely integrated star turns – and gives a context for the soliloquies in which the characters explain themselves to the audience.
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is a satirical comedy of manners about class in African-American society that rapidly embraces farce and the comedy of embarrassment. Avery Harrison is a successful preacher in a black church, living in a predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia with his crushingly snobbish wife, Myra, and his 19-year-old son, Felix, whose polite well-bred exterior conceals an inclination towards the wrong side of the tracks. Beverley, the Harrisons’ niece, arrives from the South, to be adopted by Caleb, her late father’s streetwise partner in a night club. Add in Felix’s possibly pregnant girl-friend, L’il Bits, and the play sets off on its erratic and always highly entertaining course.
Dawn Walton has assembled a superb cast, all perfectly attuned to her high-octane view of the play. I suspect that the text can be played with greater seriousness (I have even seen it referred to as a “tragic-comedy”), but I’m more than happy to take this interpretation at face value. As Myra Jocelyn Jee Esien’s every gesture and inflection reflect her social aspiration, parading malapropisms and bad French, Roger Griffiths’ Avery, less openly snobbish, wears his dignity as a shield (at first, anyway) and Isaac Seebandeke’s nerdish Felix dissolves into a succession of tics and manic sprints. Ayesha Antoine is wonderfully expressive as Beverley, beautifully balancing innocence, shrewdness and the determination to get her own way, and ultimately running rings round Caleb, an engaging performance from Daniel Francis, nicely judging the moral ambiguity of the character. Michelle Asante (L’il Bits) and Jacqueline Boatswain (in two contrasted parts) are equally dynamic.
Libby Watson’s designs are perfectly in step with the production, notably the “elegant” sitting room of the Harrisons, with too much gold and not a cushion out of place, and the lighting (Natasha Chivers) and sound (Emma Laxton) are well used to create the effect of a television studio.