In its heyday Monty Python ran into trouble with the BBC over a sketch set inside an undertakers which was deemed to be in very poor taste. Heaven knows what Auntie would have made of Spymonkey’s Stiff which goes a lot further in depicting unsuitable antics inside a funeral parlour. This show was the first for the physical theatre group, premiering way back in 1998, and it is fascinating to look back and see how far they have come since then.
Actually, many of the standard elements of their later shows are already in place although it does lack the finesse of those that were to come and it is clear that the quartet are still developing their onstage personas. Thus, we see Toby Park as tragedian extraordinare Forbes Murdston embark on a dramatic homage to his recently deceased wife with all the usual po-faced seriousness with which he customarily treats his productions. The setting is Graves’ funeral parlour (“Good morning, we’re mourning”) a suitably sombre setting in which to play out the absurd Victorian melodrama which Murdston has supposedly written. But, of course, he has hired all the wrong people to help him on this task; Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss doing all they can to make a distinct mockery of proceedings. They manage to do so with mostly hilarious results but there are some misfires which clearly come from the team learning what works and what does not.
Despite the framing device the play is actually a series of routines rather than a necessarily coherent whole. This provides a strong link to the films of the Marx Brothers to whom Spymonkey clearly owe a huge debt; Aitor Basauri, in particular, conjures the spirit of Chico. But some of these set pieces provide comic highlights of the sort that only this team can provide. Petra Massey as Mandy Bandy provides an object lesson in how not to apply make up and also sends up Hollywood romantic comedy as she strings together cliched dialogue while trying to seduce Murdston/Park. He, trying to reposition the corpse of his dead wife (played by Basauri – this time channelling Harpo) is a masterclass of absurd physical comedy. It’s one of those routines that pays rewatching purely for the joy of seeing how cleverly it, and Basauri, unfolds. Such routines were to become a staple of their later work. However, there are some longueurs. Kriess and Basauri’s rivalry (used to much better effect in Hysteria) over the best looking grave “decorations” goes on for too long and Massey’s wild dance while impressively athletic does little more than provide a breathing space for the others. Perhaps the daftest idea of all is when Stephan Kriess dismembers the body (she has a donor card!) and the various bits perform a jolly highland reel from inside the coffin. It is joyfully silly and I promise that it makes more sense than it sounds here.
Designer Lucy Bradridge provides some clever touches, especially the false backed coffin, but clearly the team had a much smaller budget when they started out and so scenery, costumes and props are relatively basic. However, they work within the show’s rather more modest ambitions and director Cal McCrystal uses whatever there is to good effect in his trademark chaotic style, building routines until they appear to be exhausted only for them to continue to reach further heights of craziness. If this was the only show they had ever produced it would still be very funny but there were definitely greater things to come.
Production photos by Bernhard Fuchs
Stiff is available via the Spymonkey website. Click here for freestream (1 week only) or go to Vimeo OnDemand
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