The Chinese legend of the Monkey King seems ubiquitous. Last year Manchester staged the Anglo-Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West, in Manchester and recently the touring Chinese Circus featured the Monkey King as a dancing, clowning bridge between the acts. This West Yorkshire Playhouse staging uses Colin Teevan’s 2001 adaptation for the Young Vic.
Teevan shapes the narrative around Monkey’s challenge to the King of Death who sets out to claim his life. In the early scenes Monkey’s constant pranks bring imprisonment in a mountain for 500 years, but the main story is of his great journey to the Western Heavens as protector to Tripitaka, the monk seeking to bring back the holy scriptures that will restore peace to China. There are encounters with demons and monsters, but the main emphasis is on the recruitment of more disciples (banished from the Heavens for various misdemeanours) and, of course, the final triumph.
Much to their credit, Teevan and director Dominic Leclerc present the Buddhist message with due seriousness (Matt Costain a dignified Buddha as well as a rather less restrained King of Death), but it’s significant that the first influence cited in the programme is the 1970s Japanese television series. This attained cult status as much for its faults as its merits and the play camps somewhere between legend and parody. As a result it’s the closing scene of the first half before the pantomime silliness kicks in and later still before any real sense of magic emerges.
Despite that there is much to admire. The effects from Wired Aerial Theatre are attractive and sometimes thrilling, with Wendy Hesketh as Tripitaka combining aerial grace with a sympathetic acting performance of growing authority. Jami Reid-Quarrell as Monkey copes admirably with the physical demands of the part even if his playfulness and energy are almost too irrepressible. Mike Goodenough (Pigsy) and Dominic Gately (Sandy) do the comic companions as if travelling the Yellow Brick Road and the remaining cast members change costume, assume voices, fight, dance and shin up ropes with skill and vigour.
Liz Cooke’s settings are suitably adaptable, with the mountains the only constant, and her costume designs often show a pleasing sense of fantasy. Mark Jonathan’s lighting is admirably atmospheric and Mic Pool’s sound leaves no shock or crisis unpointed. Perhaps my tepid reaction has something to do with the fact that the Press Night overran by over 20 minutes on a very short evening. Despite no evident glitches, this suggests it was not fully up to speed.