The Monkey, Theatre 503

The Monkey - Theatre 503, George Whitehead and Morgan Watkins, photos by Simon Annand 2

Tel and Dal are two Sarf London geezas who grew up together on a Bermondsey estate. Dapper and ambitious Tel has moved up in the criminal underworld, away from Dal’s small-scale thieving so they don’t see each other much. Dal’s less aspirational, still robbing people on the street with his mate Becks. When they’re not out working, Dal and Becks get their drugs from young dealer Al, who lives upstairs. Life’s ticking along as normal until Tel shows up unannounced looking for the money he leant to Al a month ago. Tel’s volatile temperament, sharp intelligence and vanity mean the other three are no match for the increasing danger.

John Stanley’s dark comedy could easily descend into poverty porn, but he avoids this pitfall with a focus on detailed characterisation and the consequences of drug addiction, both of which can translate to any social class. It helps that ex-prisoner Stanley knows this world intimately rather than writing from a distance that leads to stereotyping.

The script focuses on the importance we endow on the tiny obstacles we encounter and our propensity to overreact to them. A life of addiction and crime and a lack of global perspective heightens the characters’ responses, providing insight into how their drug use distorts their priorities and world view. There’s a good dose of comedy that keeps the story from wallowing – an effective and much-needed device in the face of some pretty horrific behaviour.

The four performers are excellent, with Morgan Watkins as a twitchy, dangerous Tel, the fantastic catalyst for tension and story. The other three characters are more casual and relaxed, and not a lot would happen if plot progression had to rely on them. The scenes without Tel are slower and calmer, a necessary change in tone, but little is contributed other than story. Unfortunately, the all-white cast doesn’t accurately reflect southeast London diversity.

Though the story’s events leading up to the climactic, misogynist end tend towards mundane, clear messages emerge – don’t do hard drugs or they will royally fuck you up, and not every drug addict is a bad person. The well-developed characters evoke empathy rather pity or disdain, but their potential to have full, healthy lives is evident in a story that lives in the shades of grey rather than black or white. They’re mostly functional in their present state, but due to the environment they grew up and live in, the glimpses of potential seen now were likely to not have been encouraged.

For a first play, it’s incredibly strong. Paired with stunning performances, it’s a fairly solid production with few shortcomings.

The Monkey runs through 18 March.

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