The Hartlepool monkey is a tale bursting with vibrant comedy and tender tragedy suitable for all ages. With its traditional shanties, excellent accents, and intermittent and engaging French translation on-stage, it has an authenticity that draws you into town life. There are short humorous history lessons at the beginning, and a variety of side-splitting characters and moments to keep you chuckling.
The prop motion in this play is truly incredible, with every element of the stage used to its utmost extent – ship sails becoming a church or a clothesline, a picture frame turning into a window or a prison. With puppetry by Gyre & Gimble, the original puppeteers behind War Horse, the puppet itself is brought to life so thoroughly that it can hardly be considered a prop at all, with the range of emotion put into the vocals by lead puppeteer Fred Davis pulling a physical discomfort from the audience in moments of pain and terror.
Fellow actors mentioned how the feeling the puppeteers’ hands through the glove hands of the puppet gave them a realistic connection and felt like a true interaction with an intelligent animal.
There was no moment more poignant in bringing this intelligence to life than during the trial to decide the life of Napoleon the chimpanzee, when suddenly all the squabbling humans became monkeys in their slow-motion, whirling arms and crazed faces, and Napoleon spoke his only line of the play: ‘I want to go home’. The death of such a character brought tears to the eyes of the audience, and drove home the extent to which we can all act out of fear.
Throughout the play there is a manipulation by the people in power to control the rest of the town, to feed the fear against Napoleon and the French in order to distract from the true problems. This scapegoat is something that can resonate with adult audiences in a post-Brexit world, with lines throughout the play such as ‘stronger and safer alone’ and ‘I was deceived’ bringing this to light.
Toby Olié, one of the play’s directors, even said the play could be seen as ‘an allegory for Brexit’ with co-director Finn Caldwell adding that ‘It’s about communities that feel isolated and because of that isolation they develop a sense of us and them. With Brexit and Trump being elected the story has taken on a real resonance for us.’
There is ‘a universal instinct to fear otherness, and it’s universally important to react against that’ said Jonathan Dryden Taylor, actor of the part of Eric. Regardless of these comparisons, this is an unanimously applicable parable for all types of hatred, with a uniting message that ‘hating is easy, it takes true courage to be kind’.
The uplifting way the community draws together despite the tragedy that occurred leaves the audience hopeful in the idea that ‘it is braver to learn than to loathe’, and all that it takes to learn is a smile, an open hand, and a first step.