Writer: Chris Goode (dialogues originated by Karl James)
Director: Chris Goode
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
The opening image of Monkey Bars is of a man sat on a luminous white box singing to a plate of green jelly. Not long after another man walks on stage dressed in his underpants wearing a balaclava and blows up a red balloon. These surreal and seemingly unrelated images invite the audience to question where these characters are from and what world they inhabit? They exist in a wholly unique, magical space that the company conjure, where reality is made of shinny white cubes and adults speak the uncensored words of children with utter conviction. A brilliant take on the familiar conceit from films such as Freaky Friday or Seventeen (where an adult’s mind and consciousness is transferred into a child’s body), Monkey Bars is clever, unnerving and very funny.
The piece is bookended with a frame-setting device that explains that these are real interviews with children and young people and then a series of thematic discussion and monologues form the body of the show. A wonderfully eclectic range of topics are covered from the difference between boys and girls, the pros and cons of celebrity, the duties of Islam, the splendour of monarchy and what constitutes a favourite sweet. Changes of theme are demarked by shifts in the illuminated cubes or interludes of music and the actors present a range of children’s views on life in their own voice as if they were speaking on the topic in hand. The dissonance between the adult speaking and the child’s words is thoroughly explored by director and writer Chris Goode. It is relatively straight-forward to make such material amusing and charming in it’s innocence, but Goode goes much further than that. He shows us how much children are already exposed to the horrors of the world through media saturation and how much maturity is forced on them by the ways we have chosen to live. The uncluttered, undiplomatic, unmediated responses they are able to give on some of the big questions of modern living strip away the mannered excuses of the adult mind and show the audience what should have been axiomatic. The effect is riveting.
The play offers a challenge to cast: playing a child’s words and responses but in their adult voice and body. Goode has avoided clichéd representations of adults playing children and gone for a much edgier and more interesting fusion of the grown and growing up. The cast find the playing style consistently and pull it off with aplomb. Philip Bosworth and Christian Roe are wonderfully animated discussing the girls in their year. Gwyneth Strong captures the delicacy and poignancy of a child’s reflections on transitions to adulthood, finding every nuance that the words offer. Gordon Warnecke and Angela Clerkin are equally strong as the interviewer of the children and as the children themselves and Cathy Tyson is marvellous throughout. Moreover, they are attuned to each other’s performance and gel effectively as a fluid ensemble.
Monkey Bars is a clever and telling exploration of the space between being two different stages of life. It speaks to everything that as children we wanted to be when we grew up, and everything that as adults we remember nostalgically about childhood. A wise, witty and thoroughly original show.