Chris Hayes


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Hartlepool Monkey

Until Sat 21 Oct, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 

Tues 24 – Wed 25 Oct, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

The Hartlepool Monkey, the new play from Gyre & Gimble, known for their puppet-based plays, including the London Old Vic’s The Lorax, is a production filled with comedy and tragedy, but tinged with a little heavy-handedness in its message.

The play centres round the small town of Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars. Based on a legend about how the townsfolk mistook a monkey for a French spy and consequently hanged him, the ending of the play is not a surprise, and indeed the cast remind us multiple times of the monkey’s inevitable demise. Instead the play focuses on how the monkey came to arrive in the town, and the small-mindedness of the townspeople, in particular their corrupt elders. The play is, according to the directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Ollé an allegory for Brexit, and the jingoism and fear of the unknown that exists nowadays.

While its morals about scapegoating, prejudice and its main message that “hating is easy, it takes true courage to be kind” are well-presented and accessible to children, it attempts to present a message about immigration and a post-Brexit Britain, but these complex issues are not suited to the comparatively simplistic allegory found in The Hartlepool Monkey.

In many ways the play serves as a vehicle for the puppetry, so it is easy to overlook issues with the story. The monkey prop itself is fantastic, but it is truly brought to life by puppeteer Fred Davis, who expertly mimics the sounds and movements of the doomed simian. The character is so lifelike and engaging that it’s easy to forget that there are at times multiple people operating the puppet. The acting itself was very good too, with strong performances from all actors. In particular, Rebecca Collingwood stood out in her portrayal of a young French girl hoping to join the fight against the British, before befriending the monkey.

A review about a play about the hanging of a monkey would not be complete without comment on the event itself. While the play is suitable for children over 10 years, there are some unsettling moments, including a torture sequence. The hanging itself is not shown directly, but is unpleasant nonetheless. However this only serves to highlight the consequences of the townspeople’s scapegoating.


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