Just as every Thursday has tended to be National Theatre at Home night, so have Sundays become the preserve of Spymonkey. The troupe has been keeping us entertained with their COVID-19 Emergency Physical Comedy Aid Package in which they have released each show from their back catalogue as a week long freestream. The current show is a bit of a rarity and one that has not appeared online before so if you enjoy the anarchic group’s brand of fun this is one that you won’t want to miss.
In one sense it is not a Spymonkey show per se, rather it is a collaboration with fellow partners in clowning Told By An Idiot and directed by the latter’s Paul Hunter. The plot is based on a classic 1890s Feydeau farce. Le Système Ribadier has been “reimagined” by Tamsin Oglesby and updated to 1925 as Every Last Trick though by all accounts the vast majority of the original has been stripped out to make way for the trademark set pieces and the usual inventive silliness. Feydeau farces are predicated on a central, apparently respectable, male figure being found to have feet of clay and making desperate attempts to cover up his shortcomings (usually involving sexual liaisons) from his wife. Around this central figure, intrigue boils as a cast of eccentrics don disguises, indulge in word play and chase each other round the stage; much furious door slamming usually takes place.
The slight trouble with Every Last Trick is that nobody really wants to play the straight man around whom the chaos revolves and with this comic quartet’s flair it would be a pity if they did. In theory the role should fall to Juan, the Spanish ambassador and part time conjuror who uses hypnotism to fool his wife Angela when indulging in his peccadillos. As Juan is Aitor Basauri there is no chance of him playing the straight man; indeed, he seems to go even further in creating a clown figure than would normally be the case. His wig and his costume appear to have minds of their own and his heavily accented rendering of certain English phrases leads to as much confusion as ever. There is a long front of curtain sequence at the start of Act Two where Juan/Basauri performs the sawing a man in half trick. This has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot but the routine is very funny.
The other founder of Spymonkey, Toby Park, plays Tom, brother of Angela’s deceased first husband. He has a long held passion for his sister in law and has travelled to Borneo in order to forget. Now he is back and has brought with him an elephant, Jambalaya, who makes unscheduled appearances – well at least his trunk does. Tom pursues Angela while Juan pursues his unseen mistress. Sophie Russell as Angela alternately harangues Juan and fends off Tom (sorry if this is confusing but that’s farce for you). The final member of the quartet is Adrien Gygax who plays a very lanky drink stealing butler and a very fat husband on the warpath. Gygax, who is new to me, is at consummate at clowning as the other three and there’s a particular sight gag involving a rabbit that will remain in the memory for some time to come.
I’m not sure that the comic inventiveness quite hits the heights of some of Spymonkey’s other work. It is as though they feel a little hemmed in by the confines of the script and are better at what they do when they have more of a free rein. There also seem to be some attempts to subvert the genre entirely; rather than slamming doors as characters exit, they actually find themselves locked in and unable to escape (perhaps that’s actually a metaphor for the performances). When they do “break out” though, there is some wonderfully inventive stuff such as only Spymonkey can produce e.g. wildly silly word play and a giggle inducing (for them) card game. The highlight is the glorious chase/fight scene between Gygax and Basauri carried out to Park’s evocative music and as an obvious homage to slapstick cinema/Warner Brothers cartoons. This builds nicely with bodies stretched to unfeasible lengths, flying swords and even Jambalaya gets in on the act.
The play doesn’t really have an ending but a spirited dance number suffices to wind up proceedings. The piece is an interesting experiment which, at least, isn’t just re-treading earlier successes. If you want to see pure classic Feydeau then this probably won’t float your boat but if you enjoy Spymonkey then hop aboard for another wild ride.
Production photos by Robert Day
Every Last Trick is available via the Spymonkey website. Click here for freestream (1 week only) or go to Vimeo OnDemand
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