Writer: John Stanley
Director: Russell Bolam
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Do graphic depictions of violence on TV and in film influence our behaviour or do they merely reflect it? With many cinematic depictions of gangsters from the Krays to virtually any Tarantino showing them as glamorous, even semi-romantic, mythical figures, has this become an aspirational lifestyle for young men? John Stanley’s new comedy The Monkey, premiering at Theatre 503, uses these influences to take a sharp look at the building of criminal reputation and the delivery of self-determined justice.
Terry returns to his former tower block home in Bermondsey to check on the £500 he lent to a young drug dealer known as Thick-Al, but quickly discovers that not only is repayment unlikely but Al lied to him and maligned his reputation in the neighbourhood. Determined to prove he won’t be taken for a fool, Terry gives Al 24 hours to come up with the cash. But, despite the advice of his friends Al choses to ride it out and when Terry returns, Al stands to lose more than the last Jaffa Cake.
John Stanley’s new play is a co-winner of the Synergy Theatre Project’s prison scriptwriting competition and his internal knowledge of codes of behaviour, the need for respect and, most interestingly, the self-doubt and sensitivity that afflicts the bolshiest felons is strongly and convincingly portrayed. Stanley creates a sleazy world fuelled by the sale, acquisition and frequent use of drugs that renders those involved incapable of anything else, looking forward to their first hit with their morning tea and bartering for more ‘rock’, ‘sniff’ or ‘brown’.
In Terry, Stanley has created a deeply menacing young man and Morgan Watkins’ taut performance is a highlight of this new production as he edgily paces the stage, agitated and unable to settle, using his height and lean figure to convey Terry’s tightly wound and explosive nature. Watkins shows Terry as always very close to the surface of himself, with a capacity for sudden and shocking violence that he cannot control, while making up new slang that no one understands. But there are subtle attempts to create sympathy for him particularly in a brief pause between two confrontations where Watkins shows him struggling to accept what he’s done and trying to calm himself.
Equally interesting, although considerably underused, is Daniel Kendrick’s Darren, Terry’s oldest friend whose primary role is to warn the audience at the start to be wary and to act as Terry’s conscience towards the end. Kendrick has a very natural stage presence and a real feel for the rhythm of Stanley’s writing which adds texture to a small role, but given the themes of long-standing male friendships, the self-delusion of personality and the maintenance of reputation, the character of Darren could be developed and their duologues expanded to explore this more fully.
Thick-Al is slightly less successful in performance and lacks conviction as a drug dealer prepared to tell horrendous lies to get what he wants. As played by George Whitehead, he’s too nice, a bit of comedy buffoon whose vacancy and innocence raise a number of laughs. But, he’s not nearly terrified enough during one of the play’s climactic moments nor does he ever seem a possible match for Terry’s uncontainable rages.
Stanley plays with notions of cinematic violence and directly references some of the gangster genres most notable films which give important insights into how Terry sees himself. While occasionally the scenes later in the play have too much dialogue, there’s still a lot to admire in his first ever play which captures of a side of London still too rarely seen on stage. With a very fine performance from Morgan Watkins, Monkey asks plenty of questions about copycat violence and the personal need for status and respect that it stems from.
Runs until 18 March 2017 | Image: Simon Annand