King Kong: A Comedy
The Vaults Theatre
5th July 2017
This is one of the most powerful of modern myths, drawing its force from deep and ancient drives in humanity, and locating them boldly and magnificently in the forefront of our industrialised civilization. Originated in the early 1930s as a concept by the producer Merion C Cooper, it was then developed into a first draft narrative by Edgar Wallace, the great mystery writer. It was to be the adventure novelist’s last, unfinished offering before his death, and it is not stretching a point too far to say that with it he created his own kind of contemporary ‘Mystery’ of an almost religious nature, given final shape by the combined talents of James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, with contributions by the special effects stop-motion artist Wills O’Brien.
In this tale, Humanity is either the myriad horde of the most advanced economic and cultural capital in the world at the time of writing, New York City, or the tribe of islanders paying fearful tribute to the wild incarnation of Nature, ‘the beast’ of Wallace’s novelisation, a giant gorilla called Kong, a surging, uncontrollable presence of the singular, massive and dauntless energy of life itself, that they try to keep at a safe distance behind an immense Wall. People, trapped in thrall to their buildings and machines and ordered, mechanistic lives – nearly every conceivable form of modernity is thrown into the plot, or inhabiting the terrified fringes of a natural world from which they have become impossibly estranged, are pitted against Nature in an elegantly constructed, beautifully varied titanic struggle, to which there can be only one, horribly tragic outcome.
As a tragedy, then, it is crying out for comic spoofing, and that is what it gets here. The comedic genius of Daniel Clarkson is turned like a searchlight into the gloomy world of lost islands and exotic creatures, where the flotsam and jetsam of the Great Depression wash up to do battle – and transfigure themselves – with the well-spring of Nature, brutally red in tooth and claw. Infused by the comic writing of the era, and much that has followed since, Clarkson has crafted a script stuffed full with the kind of wisecracks and verbal hijinks that have delighted audiences of parodies to this day. Most of the time, director Owen Lewis is entirely equal to the challenge of making these skits and gags live and breathe today; there are moments when we believe we are in fact watching The Marx Brothers at work, or following an off-cut from ‘Hellzapoppin’. And there are many more modern references, too: Monty Python is drawn upon generously – with even a fight involving slapping someone’s face with a fish. It is sometimes difficult to get these jokes to work (I’m sure there will be plenty of fine-tuning going on through the run: it’s booking into September), but most of the show plays beautifully.
Helping it along its anarchic, madcap path is the tyro fivesome that make up its condensed cast: the avuncular, port-and-stilton-voiced Rob Crouch makes Carl Denham more like Orson Welles than the dishy Robert Armstrong of 1933; on the other hand, Sam Donnelly, last seen in ‘The Boys in The Band’, and here quite unrecognisable in full nautical beard as the Skipper of the SS Venture, is always a great deal sexier than Frank Reicher in the original film; the Fay Wray part (whatever happened to her?) of Ann Darrow is seized with tall, Katharine Hepburn-esque tenacity by Alix Dunmore, in a role that could possibly do with just a little bit more elaboration – it would be so nice to see her win on her terms, and not just kow-tow to the chauvinism of the blokes; her love interest – of sorts – of Jack Driscoll is travestied in a Woody Allen-esque way (I said this was eclectic, didn’t I?) by Ben Chamberlain (amongst many other roles he brilliantly assumes); and Brendan Murphy picks up the pieces of Token Guy (don’t ask), Marv and Larry, all delicious in their own way. In fact, everybody gets to play several other parts. There must be wonderful mayhem backstage with stacks of costumes and props (thank you to Sophia Simensky) to get through every performance. In keeping with the film, the part of Kong himself is masterfully understated; barely sketched in, actually, with the head, hand and model all making their appearances, appurtenances aptly hommaging the craftsmanship of the RKO Studio workshops. This reticence to show the monster in all his glory reminds us of the beautiful opera by Harrison Birtwistle, ‘The Second Mrs Kong’, which – like this retelling – is all about the humans, really.
In this world, order is created mainly by the beautifully simple and yet evocative art deco sunburst oaken panelling of Simon Scullion’s ziggurat of a set (he also designs props, too). This, combined with the meticulous care taken by Lewis’s direction and the precision of Tim Mascall’s wonderful lighting, playing with tints, depths and density to create a legion of different effects, works wonders in bringing to life the epic journey we must undertake. All this comes to us from the capable company known as ‘Monkey Live’. No credits in the programme about who or what they are, but if they do not ultimately have their sights set on a longer tour, and a transfer, then I would be surprised. As things stand, it’s very nearly there. Attention wanders a bit in the second half, where arguably too much time is taken up with ‘chat’, when what the story needs is pace and incident: there is much more scope for that on Skull Island than the writer has yet given us, so perhaps re-writes are happening even as I type this. What a thrilling thought!
Meanwhile, as Clarkson points out in an internet clip: this is actually quite funny and so probably you ought to go and take a look for yourself. I’m certainly glad I did.
Until 27 August 2017