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The Dead Monkey (Park Theatre)

The death of a beloved pet signals the beginning of the end for a crumbling marriage in this play from the late Cornish writer Nick Darke

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
James Lance as Hank
© Zute Lightfoot

Nick Darke's most popular play, about the death of an all-American marriage, has had numerous revivals since its first staging by the RSC in 1986. Most notably, original Starsky and Hutch star David Soul chose The Dead Monkey as a comeback vehicle and brought his version to London in 1998.

In its current run at the Park Theatre – the third production from new company Mongrel Thumb – designer Anthony Lamble has created a convincingly crumbling Californian beach shack, and the uplifting, poignant Beach Boys soundtrack from sound designer Dave Price takes us straight back to the glory days of surf hero Hank.

But things have changed in the intervening 15 years, and the dazzling athlete who got the girl by surfing with a monkey on his back is now a travelling salesman who only sees his discontented wife three days a month. Hank is grizzled and paunchy – well, grizzled anyway, as James Lance is still in fine fettle despite his character's protestations about a saggy tum.

The disintegration of their relationship is played out in a series of nasty revelations and grisly events that belie the briskly humorous tone director Hannah Price has pushed for in this production.

Playing neglected wife Dolores, Ruth Gibson combines a brittle, Monroe-esque appeal with a steely core that gradually emerges along with the truth about the couple's pet monkey. As Princess Diana once put it, 'There were three of us in this marriage'.

Hank is a pitiful character, but doesn't see it himself. James Lance captures all his shambling, self-serving bluster, and certainly makes a very convincing drunk.

But despite some good one-liners and an absurdist narrative that becomes almost surreal at points, there isn't really enough meat in the story to flesh out this play. The second half doesn't move the action along in any significant way other than to reinforce the fact that a put-upon wife has found independence and her husband doesn't like it. The way he deals with his discontent comes as no surprise either, and Lance's physical presence is imposing enough to give the violent closing scenes a horrid realism that brings the absurdity to a sharp end.

Although The Dead Monkey is essentially a two-hander, Charles Reston radiates a chilling calm as the Vet who assists after all the deaths or near-deaths in the play, demonstrating a scientific exactitude in even the ghastliest of circumstances, and his deadpan delivery wrings the laughs from the lines.

In their own ways, these are all desperate characters, and there are committed, powerful performances from all the cast. The play has a lot to say about egotism and the fragility of human relationships, and director Hannah Price moves it along with as much crisp energy as the script allows.

The Dead Monkey runs at the Park Theatre until 4 July 2015