Review: King Kong (The Vaults)

This new parody from the creators of the ”Potted” stage series offers a fresh interpretation of the familiar ”Kong” story

Alix Dunmore (Ann) and Rob Crouch (Denham) in King Kong (A Comedy)
Alix Dunmore (Ann) and Rob Crouch (Denham) in King Kong (A Comedy)
© Geraint Lewis

If you’re going to haul the cinematic beast that is King Kong off the big screen and onto the teeny stage, you might as well do it in the lair that is the Vaults Theatre. Here, under the arches of Waterloo Station, shadows flicker, a chill fills the air, and a foreboding rumble comes courtesy of trains overhead.

The scene, as they say, is set. Not for terror – but for a roaring parody of that 1933 film and every cliché and weird spin-off it’s ever spawned (including Godzilla).

Behind King Kong (A Comedy) are two men with three Olivier nominations between them: director Owen Lewis and writer Daniel Clarkson, the co-creator of the Potted stage series, including the hit, Potted Potter.

This new parody offers an interpretation of the familiar Kong story, in which New York filmmaker Carl Denham (Rob Crouch) takes a motley crew plus glamorous punter-off-the-street Ann Darrow (Alix Dunmore) off to Skull Island to make a new picture. Though their filmic ambitions get thwarted when they fall foul of the gorilla king, they ultimately capture him to be exhibited back in Manhattan.

The ensnaring of Kong was never the original plan, of course – and in common with Clarkson’s other works, the spoof play is nothing if not fixated on the theme of distraction. The five-strong cast tangle themselves in a lovely great mess of slapstick, wordplay, and hasty costume changes. Sometimes they hide behind set designer Simon Scullion’s cleverly tiered props. Then, the action suddenly scales up into something more suggestive of cinema: mad puppet shows are enacted on what could be a mountain, or the top of a New York skyscraper.

When you realise that the mess is resolving into an actual story, you notice one or two pleasing bits of modernising. Ann, for instance, is no powerless damsel-in-distress at the end – and in its unrelenting style, the play often points out that the gender politics in the original tale are, well, pretty bananas.

Equally unrelenting are some much dafter jokes with broad New Yoiiik accents, fake moustaches and other Marx Brothers-style monkeying around. Not every gag hits the mark – a scene with a nose-whistle and a Frank Sinatra tune was probably more amusing on paper – but when it’s funny, it’s monstrously so.

Among the highlights are skits which see puppets act out a human sacrifice to the big gorilla, and a giant (somewhat phallic) squid’s tentacle having a battle with one member of Denham’s crew – who’s tellingly named Token Guy and seems to be the movie archetype of a luckless individual destined to be squashed or eaten by a paranormal beast.

This short show is noisy, hyperactive, and has a touch of the pâpier-maché-adorned-sixth-form-play about it – but this is controlled chaos – and sometimes, like the mighty iconic gorilla himself – totally unshackled.

King Kong (A Comedy) runs at the Vaults until 27 August.