One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show at the Tricycle Theatre: “We have a position in society, mister … an’ I don’t mean just black society.”

<em>One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show</em> at the Tricycle Theatre: “We have a position in society, mister … an’ I don’t mean just black society.”
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Jocelyn Jee Esien as Myra Harrison
Jocelyn Jee Esien as Myra Harrison

One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is every bit as silly as it sounds, and, despite the absence of any actual monkeys on stage, an absolute delight. I was apprehensive about seeing a show I knew nothing about in an equally unfamiliar venue, the Tricycle Theatre, but I came away feeling thoroughly uplifted. While the play itself may be little more than light entertainment, what left a more lasting impression was the local community who had gathered to enjoy it.

Written in 1982 by African American playwright Don Evans, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is a light-hearted exploration of the tensions between race, roots and aspiration for a black middle-class family in 1970s Philadelphia. The Harrison household shows outward signs of comfort, taste and respectability, but the cracks in the surface are quick to emerge. The Reverend Avery Harrison is an upstanding individual; his wife, Myra, the epitome of genteel. Their preppy, nerdy son, Felix, is well on his way to a bright future in dentistry. As the only black family in a well-to-do white suburb, the Harrisons go to great lengths to preserve appearances. But the arrival of their young niece Beverly — whose late father has chosen her a most unsuitable guardian in Caleb, a savvy, smooth-talking nightclub owner — threatens to turn life upside-down.

As Southern bumpkin Beverly is falling for Caleb, Felix learns that his girlfriend, Li’l Bits, is pregnant. In a desperate attempt to break free from his mother’s iron grip, he packs his bags and leaves home, intending to quit college and find work to support his new family. His plans backfire when it turns out that Li’l Bits, a working-class girl herself, wants nothing less than a dentist for a husband. Avery, meanwhile, is also breaking free within the confines of the family home, inspired by his son’s copy of The Joy of Sex.

One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has never been staged in the UK before. I am always thrilled to see something a little bit different and, judging from the laughter around us, I wasn’t the only one. While the play’s humour was clearly not lost on a British audience, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show is very much of its time and place. Producer Dawn Walton’s decision to frame the show as an American TV sitcom (think The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) helped to convey this, but was ultimately unnecessary. The use of canned laughter and applause was initially amusing, but ended up highlighting the weaker, more artificial parts of the show, which the enthusiastic spectators might not otherwise have noticed.

The idea of a sitcom did, on the other hand, allow the actors to ham up their performances, which they did, for the most part, with great success. Jocelyn Jee Esian gave a magnificent turn as Myra Harrison, the ‘bougie’ (bourgeois) wife who spouts malapropisms, referring to perverts as ‘preverts’, and mistaking hostility for hospitality. She tries to impress with her fancy French cooking, but Caleb soon reveals the emptiness of such pretentions when he, the ‘low-life’, is the only one who knows how to pronounce ‘boeuf bourguignon’. The other star of the show is Karl Collins as Avery, Myra’s sexually frustrated husband. He might be a Reverend, but this poses no obstacle to his renewed zest for life. He’s also quite a mover, as we see throughout his attempts to seduce Myra.

The other characters were rather more hit-and-miss. Jacqueline Boatswain made a skillful transition between two very entertaining characters: Caleb’s lady friend Mozelle and old Mrs Caldwell, the mother of Li’l Bits. Isaac Ssebandeke, as Felix, gave a disappointing performance, not helped by a thoroughly unconvincing American accent, although his enthusiastic enactment of ‘breaking free’ into a world full of women was hilarious. Rebecca Scroggs and Clifford Samuel, as Beverly and Caleb, were perfectly good; unfortunately, a weakness in either the script or production meant that some of their dialogues felt very slow.

Each character did come into their own when given a soliloquy, a chance to reveal their thoughts directly to the audience. This was a particularly nice touch, and a good way to round off each scene. For all its flaws, this was a hugely entertaining show, which is now on a national tour.

The Tricycle Theatre, which clearly thrives as an offbeat alternative to West End venues, serving curried goat and jerk chicken at the bar, has an equally intriguing production to follow. Paper Dolls, a new play with music, is the true story of a group of Filipino immigrants who work as carers for elderly men in Tel Aviv, and in their spare time form a musical drag act. Make of that what you will; I for one would thoroughly recommend a trip.

One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show ran at the Tricycle Theatre until 9 February.

Charlotte Seymour

About Charlotte Seymour

Charlotte recently graduated from Oxford with a degree in French and Italian. A would-be nomad but for her cats and books which travel less easily, she is often on the move, and spent her year abroad between New York, Paris, Italy, and Madagascar, during which time she befriended some lemurs and learned to make limoncello. She will probably have to stay put now in London for some time…unless she runs away again. In the meantime, she can also be found writing for The Harker, and recently started an online guide to life (aka eating) in many corners of the globe.

Charlotte recently graduated from Oxford with a degree in French and Italian. A would-be nomad but for her cats and books which travel less easily, she is often on the move, and spent her year abroad between New York, Paris, Italy, and Madagascar, during which time she befriended some lemurs and learned to make limoncello. She will probably have to stay put now in London for some time…unless she runs away again. In the meantime, she can also be found writing for The Harker, and recently started an online guide to life (aka eating) in many corners of the globe.

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