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LIFE'S A MONKEY
Verdict: Interesting study of elusive science
London - Cochrane Theatre - November 02
31 Oct to 9 Nov 02
Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, London WC1B 4AP, tel 020 7269 1606
Max Sharman's a scientist with a past. He's in love with fellow-scientist Ophelia. But did she corrupt him, or was it B? Has she stolen his work? And what's he doing with that monkey?
Life's a Monkey is a teasing play about an elusive truth that's led to a punch-up at the Edinburgh Festival between two scientists, one equipped with voice-synthesiser. The truth's the Higgs Boson, known to physicists as God's Particle. Real-life Stephen Hawking has bet money it can't be found, and in the play, Max can't find it either. But has he been corrupted? And what about CP Snow?
The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, The Rede Lecture delivered in 1959, was scientist and novelist CP Snow's indictment of the arts for failing to keep up with science's giant strides. He predicted a society riven in two, with no bridge between the arts and the sciences. Life's a Monkey deals with this too. B, who may have corrupted Max, is a writer. And later, they both become artists.
The well-spring for Life's A Monkey is Moscow, back in the 80s with The Berlin Wall in place. It's John Le Carré territory, and B (Andrew Byron)'s the witty fool in the Moscow literary scene, who's no-one's fool and a KGB agent charged with subverting visting American scientist Max (Alex Dower). Max kisses Ophelia (Susannah Doyle) on a No 53 Soviet tram, and starts a spark between them that endures to the present.
In the Moscow past, Mia (Susan McGoun), Schlovsky (Paul Meston), Malinov (Myles Hewitt), B, and perhaps Ophelia, all need to compromise Max as they dine in Tolstoy's House, while a waitress (Clea Smith) serves food. They're scientists, and writers, and there's a race on between Max's America and their United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR).
It's the 90s. The Wall's gone. Russian self-respect's gone too. There's nothing left of the nation that put the first man into space. Does B care? No, he's versatile, and now he and Max are mates. They're in Switzerland, as artists, and Ophelia's there too.
But they're not in Switzerland for the cuckoo clocks. It's home to Cern, Geneva's international nuclear laboratory, which housed the Large Electron Positron (LEP) particle accelerator (it closed in 2001 to be replaced by a far more powerful machine, the Large Hadron Collider, in five years' time). Max isn't here for the chocolate, so it's likely B and Ophelia aren't either. And what about that monkey, Max?
Capitalism breezes in with a new conspiracy just as underhand as the Communist one, and it's after Max's brain. Now it's private science, keen to buy the last unknown, the particle mooted by mild-mannered Edinburgh scientist Peter Higgs. The Higgs Boson, suggested by him in the 1960s, and as yet undiscovered, is Max's objective. That's where the monkey comes in.
Professor Zimmerman (Andrew Byron), Professor Gregor (Susan McGoun), Professor Antonioni (Paul Meston), and most of all Max's boss Professor Bell (Myles Hewitt), are very keen indeed for Max to deliver on Higgs. And the corporate power-brokers Humphrey (Myles Hewitt), Ana (Susan McGoun), Howard (Paul Meston), and their computer whizz Stevie (Clea Smith) want the prophet to turn a profit. Max goes to Africa to find a monkey.
Pacing through the velde, Max discovers a charming monkey (Clea Smith) who talks. She isn't voluble, but speaks sufficiently and relevantly. When Max returns to the lab with monkey in tow, his colleagues are surprised - but not that much: Max has a reputation for quirkiness. Max has almost worked out the equation that will solve, well, everything. His blackboard is covered in maths.
Prof Bell runs out of patience and sacks him. In that moment, the monkey delivers. Result? Nobel prize. An encounter between Max and Ophelia with possibilities. A contented monkey.
Life's a Monkey works on excellent performances from its fine cast. It's a complex rambling script with flashes of delight and an amount of prolixity that would benefit from an edit. There are good lines and characters in in, delivered with aplomb by the talent, in alpha order:
Andrew Byron delivers a funny and complex performance as B and Prof Zimmerman. B's the stronger role from the text, and he creates an endearing, funny character with layers of depth. It's a living part in Byron's hands, and adds a strong punch to the play.
Alex Dower creates a relaxed and delightful Max. It's important to the play that Max has charisma, and Dower delivers it in spades. Max is, well, a bit loopy, and Dower creates an engagingly eccentric man who doesn't appear too mad. The Max who emerges is credible and consistent, and you can imagine him talking (and paying attention to) a monkey while remaining fairly normal in other ways.
Susannah Doyle delivers a fine Ophelia. As written the part at times is a cipher rather than a person, which is hard for an actor to bring to life. Doyle does this excellently, and comes equipped to the part with a fine range of craft and inspirational skills to flesh out what the writing occasionally omits. She delivers a strong Ophelia, moving gracefully, and with a lyrical presence.
Myles Hewitt is excellently unpleasant as evil businessman Humphrey, scheming Malinov, and odious Professor Bell (both with and without toupee). Susan McGoun is witty as Ana, appropriately Soviet as Mia, and scientific as Gregor. Paul Meston is weasily as Schlovsky, acrobatic (and surprisingly camp, after the other parts) as table-jumping Howard, and sober as Antonioni. These three actors do a great deal of work in their multiple characters, and the play depends on the rock-solid foundation they provide to its many complex scenes.
Clea Smith plays a red-suited plate-dropping waitress in the first scene and establishes herself. Her elegance of movement is a delight to watch. She plays Stevie, the smelly-looking computer expert, and creates a strong characterisation. But it's when she puts on the monkey suit that the play takes off. Her monkey is mesmerising in its apparent reality (endearingly sexy too: here's a primate who could launch a trend towards bestiality - and certainly put an end to spanking the monkey). There are no clichés in its performance. Clea Smith creates here a monkey in a million.
Life's a Monkey credits three in the writing team: Michael Benson, director Ken McMullen, and adviser Terry James. The programme explains the dice-throwing method of selecting scenes, and the website has more information. But to produce a straight piece of cogent, gripping, drama out of the present script would not be difficult.
As it is, the play runs at 90 minutes, and the narrative jumps about from present to past to future. These gifted writers could deliver 60 minutes of taut drama out of this excellent script, with eg: careful and sharp cutting (including perhaps the delightful play-within-play acting scene); reduction of characters (Max, B, Ophelia, Monkey, plus one villain, eg); culling repetition and some mundane dialogue; putting it in sequence.
There are fine special effects and gauze-projection which are technically excellent. Their content doesn't tell more that is necessary to the story and they do get confusing. Layering a history of modern science onto the play doesn't add to it. They are well shot and composed, but like the 'actor' scene in the play, could better be used in a different play. It would be great to see this fine play in (for example) Edinburgh, or touring: the key to success could be technical simplicity and a 60-minute one-act cut.
Cast (alpha order): Andrew Byron (B, Professor Zimmerman). Alex Dower (Max Charman). Susannah Doyle (Ophelia). Myles Hewitt (Humphrey, Malinov, Professor Bell). Susan McGoun (Ana, Mia, Professor Gregor). Paul Meston (Schlovsky, Howard, Professor Antonioni). Clea Smith (Monkey, Stevie, Waitress).
Ken McMullen (Director, Writer). Michael Benson (Writer). Terry James (Script Advisor).
Tom Hadley (Designer). Jvan Morandi (Lighting Designer). David Cunningham (Sound Designer). Hilary Lewis (Wardrobe Supervisor). Deirdre Malynn (General Manager). Adam Carree (Technical and Production Manager). Janette Owen (Deputy Stage Manager). Lucy Southall (Assistant Stage Manager). Chris Musgrave (Stage Technician). Lucy Baxter (Film Production Manager and Casting Director). Justinian Buckley (Camera Operator and Film Editor). Andy Beauchamp (Set Construction). Liz Reed (Scenic Painting). Alex Relph (Bust and Plinth). Sarah Palmer-Manners (Hair Design). Freya Walker Brown (House Manager). Alison Griffiths (Box Office and Administration Assistant). Eammon Maxwell (Finance Officer). Nick Kaplony (Project Co-Ordinator). Kevin Wilson and Mark White (Public Relations - KWPR 020 7721 7621). Matilda Saxow@johnsonturnbull (Graphic Design). Chris Turnbull (Monkey Illustration).
reviewed Friday 1 November 02 / Cochrane Theatre
related topic - Exploratorium: What's the Higgs Boson? Imagine you're at a Hollywood party ...
related topic - Steve Connor: The Higgs Boson: The Independent 3 September 2002: Higgs v Hawking: a battle of the heavyweights that has shaken the world of theoretical physics
related topic - Prof John Naughton: University College Cork: 19 September 2002:
Bridging The Two Cultures
related topic - Martin Kettle: Two Cultures Still: The Guardian: 2 February 2002 It's 40 years since CP Snow raged
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