THE MIGHTY BEAST
Civic Hall, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 25th April, 2012
This latest show from Oddsocks Productions is a departure from their customary Shakespeare and the Classics-based hilarity but not a departure from hilarity, I am tickled to report.
We are witness to a “live broadcast” of a radio drama from a studio in the 1930s, and so the set is simply a couple of microphones and some tables laden with props. A projection on the back wall reveals the title of the piece and the face of the eponymous gigantic gorilla. The cast of four populate the play with a host of characters, every one with an extremely silly accent, although the overall tone is the clipped teddibly British accents of something like Brief Encounter.
It is all extremely silly indeed. Although this would work as a radio drama, the visual aspects are not overlooked in the slightest. To help distinguish between characters – and to make the thing sillier – the cast don a succession of wigs, hats and beards, a procedure that becomes increasingly frantic as the action progresses. While characters converse at the microphones, other cast members provide sound effects to build the scene. There is of course the obligatory boots on gravel sound – you can’t do a radio play without it – but there are also some inventive ways of portraying swinging through the jungle on vines and walking through bison-infested terrain. Whistles are blown, teacups are stirred and cabbages are slapped. The audience is enlisted to play a tribe of Cockneys, prompted by cue cards to chant, “Who’s that geezer?” and utter aggressive “Ribbits” to suggest a horde of angry frogs.
This is, in case you haven’t guessed, a spin on the story of King Kong: a film-maker and his crew travel to a mysterious island, encounter the mighty beast of the title, and bring it back to London to exploit for the purposes of show business. And it works on more than one level. We get the radio play itself which, like any good piece of narrative theatre, paints pictures in the ear of the beholder. We also get the slapstick of the cast actually trying to act the piece, and it’s all very funny but there is also something more…
This comes out in the second act. Not only does the play give us a laugh-out-loud evening out but it uses the familiar film to make a satirical point about the state of entertainment today. “Krong” (sic) is exploited in a talent show called The Beast Factor. Contestants must sing to appease the gorilla who is barely contained by chains and the fumes of bootleg vodka (provided by the wonderfully named Russian character, Krakwonov). If the savage beast is not soothed, the contestant is horribly killed and the next is brought in. It’s all a fix so that the producer’s favourite will win in the end.
An effective and satirical metaphor for the woeful state of televised music today where hopefuls are eaten up and spat out in monstrous fashion. At one point, a character opines “Why can’t we enjoy music for its own sake? Why does it always have to be a competition?” It is a serious comment and a stand against the prevailing tide.
The format reminded me of Round the Horne re-enactments that did the rounds a while ago. The content also reminded me of the golden age of British radio comedy: the silly voices, the wordplay, the speaking at crossed purposes… The splendid cast (Mark Peachey, Rebecca Jenkins, Kevin Kemp and Andy Barrow) perform with gusto, versatility, quick-wittedness and a sense of enjoyment of what they’re doing that is infectious.
Oddsocks have created a piece that showcases the talents of the performers and the wit and cleverness of director and writer Andy Barrow. That the beast can be suggested by heavy drumbeats, a furry balaclava, furry armbands and growling into a bucket says a great deal about the triumph of invention over expenditure. This piece is rich in ideas, jokes and fun. You don’t need to have two ape knees to rub together.