If there is one thing that I can point to as a positive in the whole Corona virus mess, it’s that it has led me directly to discover Spymonkey. I’d always heard that the company was essential viewing for theatre lovers but, for some reason, had never got round to seeing them in action. All that changed yesterday with Hysteria which is just one of the shows they plan to freestream during the current situation. I’m now a total convert.
Actor manager and playwright manqué Forbes Murdston (shades of Ernie Wise) has written a thriller of which he is very proud. Unfortunately, his casting skills aren’t up to much and he’s hired the totally unsuitable catalogue model Mandy Bandy, a self-important Spanish soap star Alfredo Gravés and dour German Expressionist Udo Keller to help him perform it. In the main story “fawn like” Laura du Lay arrives at a spooky mansion owned by debonair recluse Forbes Murdston (again) to work as his secretary but she is soon in great danger. Is scowling manservant Klaus and his wife, also called Klaus, the root of the problem? Fortunately, lawyer Roger Parchment and (and this is the right way round) Inspector Detective Judadench (say it quickly) are there to help save her. So far so gloriously silly.
The shows narrative influences are many and varied with shades of Hitchcock (Rebecca and Psycho) being particularly prominent. Stylistically there are nods to Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python, Sellers as Clouseau, The Show That Goes Wrong, The League of Gentlemen, Reeves and Mortimer, Tommy Cooper and a certain campfire scene from Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” – N.B. This list is not exhaustive. Basically, they are channelling just about every comic act I have ever admired. However, what the Spymonkey team do with this provides something better than the sum of its parts and the results are simply quite glorious.
There are only four performers who between them bring a raucous energy to the stage where they will do anything – and I mean anything – in search of a laugh. In the best tradition of commedia dell’arte clowns, they are all stunningly good at what they do and if I single out Aitor Basauri as Alfredo that is no disrespect to the others. Basauri is a consummate clown who has a winning way with a repeated joke (e.g. a loose wig) that allows it to build until you think that it can’t be pushed any further – only to discover that it can. His routine with a cleric’s ring which he wants Murdston (Toby Park) to kiss caused more corpsing than has a right to be seen in any one show – I enjoyed the moment immensely. Alfredo also has an ongoing feud with Udo/Klaus (Stephan Kreiss) which escalates exponentially. Petra Massey as Mandy/Laura holds the show together. She clearly can’t act (which, of course, actually means she can – superbly) striking ridiculously stiff knitwear poses, suffering increasingly troublesome digestive issues and being able to do things with ping pong balls which will make your eyes water. Laura suffers from a tendency to narcolepsy and odd dreams which is fortunate as this allows the group to meander into other implanted sketches which have little or no relation to the main action but are just beautifully silly in their own right. A nude ballet sequence is not for the faint hearted or easily offended.
Cal McCrystal’s direction is bang on the money capturing just the right mix of po-faced gravity and apparent earnestness which makes the play so funny. The cast really are trying to take it all seriously, conversely lending proceedings an even greater hilarity. The set is, purposely, very low rent and appropriately tacky “effects” lend another strand of humour. There’s a number of battery-operated pheasants which run amok and a glorious scene where the head of a horse and the wagging tails of a hunting pack of beagles can be seen through the upstage window. Sight gags are too numerous to detail, costume changes incredibly swift, the delivery of verbal gags exquisitely timed ….have you got the point yet that I think this show is exceptionally good?
I could go on, but you really need to see it for yourselves and I would urge you to do so. Even if you have missed the freestream, all the pieces in the proposed season (seven of them) are available to rent at a very modest price and then you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping the group to keep going. In these troubled times we could all do with a damn good laugh and this show provides it…in double spades. I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in weeks and if you’re in need of a tonic, then this is it. Hysteria is, well, simply hysterical.
Hysteria is available via the Spymonkey website. Click here for freestreams or go to Vimeo OnDemand
To keep up with the blog and all the latest online theatre reviews please click here and choose a follow option
For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)