Review: Great Apes (Arcola Theatre)

Patrick Marmion adapts Will Self’s 1997 novel

Turner Prize-winning artist Simon is in a bit of a pickle – he's just woken from a drug-addled binge in London to discover he's lying next to a chimp, a chimp claiming to be his girlfriend, Sarah. A series of uniformed primates burst into his house, telling him to stay calm – he's having a delusion and thinking that he's a human, when humans, kept in zoos or in rainforests, are nothing more than primitive beasts.

Will Self's 1997 Kafka-meets-Planet of the Apes novel is certainly a juicy story, ripe for stage adaptation, and Patrick Marmion makes a decent stab at distilling the 500-page text into a 140-minute anthropological adventure. Replete with a brace of chimp puns (a tote bag with the logo for the Chimp Booker Prize drew a large chuckle from the Arcola audience), Great Apes is a tale that crosses cities and continents, questioning Simon's psyche and engaging in intense simian speculation.

Marmion has stared into the face of Self's book and seen a torrent of ideas rushing back to meet him. By shifting the goalposts on the definitions of savagery and civilisation, the production makes us reflect on our own humanity and our social customs. It touches on questions of mental health, the NHS, sexuality, gendered hierarchies, the ethics of pharmaceutical companies and, in the last twenty minutes or so, the hypocrisy surrounding the treatment of endangered species.

If that sounds like a lot of plates spinning, it's because it is – and in a piece so densely packed with debate, it's easy to lose investment in Simon's personal anxieties. A slow first act and a somewhat hurried and ambiguous conclusion seem to stifle rather than open up the debate. Marmion has got a handle on Self's words and his obsession with bodies, but by stripping back the lengthy tracts present in the novel, the nuanced intricacies are hurried through.

Plaudits must go to movement director Jonnie Riordan and chimpanzee physicality and vocalisation consultant (definitely the coolest job title in theatre) Peter Elliott, pulling off the feat of metamorphosising the cast into credible walking and talking group of chimps, with costumes composed almost entirely of brown turtlenecks and harem pants. Director Oscar Pearce keeps his characters whirling and swirling around one another, with physicality and conversation often appearing civil, before suddenly transforming into the sort of behaviour you'd expect from one of our primate cousins.

Bryan Dick plays Simon with an apt amount of wide-eyed amazement and disgust – his repulsion at the overwhelming smell of chimp and subsequent use of air freshener is an amusing touch. For a cast of seven tackling almost 20 roles, each fares well in both constructing distinct characters and inhabiting the physical gestures of the apes – no mean feat for a show running at over 2 hours, with standout turns from Ruth Everett and Donna Berlin.

By blurring the lines with our furry friends, Marmion begins to question whether or not our physical bodies are all that significant anymore – in times of narcotic hedonism, Twitter, Siri and constant interaction with the virtual and artistic world. Aping around may appear loutish, but how different is it from an MDMA-stoked night out in Soho?

Great Apes runs until 21 April.