Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Frank Sumatra

Mike Yeaman
Queen's Hall Arts Centre
Customs House, South Shields

Jessica Johnson and Pip Chamberlin

There’s a current fashion for presenting stage plays as radio drama. The appeals are obvious; a sense of peeping behind the scenes to witness the inner workings of the machine as someone bangs doors, rustles paper, crunches gravel or (famously) clatters coconut shelves.

With script-in-hand, it’s also a shorter and cheaper rehearsal process. And, done properly, as it is in Mike Yeaman’s new play, which is set in a small studio, the effects can be very funny.

It’s a funny script too, touches of the surreal and absurd about the ordinary young couple, Bev (Jessica Johson) and Keith (Pip Chamberlin) who discover that the baby orang utan they adopted some years ago in Sumatra has now tracked down its ‘parents’ and is knocking at the door—at the very moment they’re attempting to create a human baby of their own. Simian interruptus, you might say.

Sitcom meets Kafka as the couple attempt to come to terms with the newcomer who they name Frank, hence the punny title, Frank Sumatra (ol’ Blue Eyes provides the musical sound track).

Frank is played by Mat Hobbins, dressed in a Guantanamo-style suit (orange, get it?) who provides all the play’s sound effects, a perfectly choreographed deadpan sequence of actions which at times threaten to steal the show. The deadpan is slightly diluted when he prances ape-like round the stage, which of course, in a real radio play would not happen, so that occasionally, (with the couple’s movements too), the style is blurred.

As Frank settles in and is increasingly seen by the dewy-eyed Bev as a possible surrogate for a real bairn, the tensions grow. Frank even invades the bedroom, though I hasten to add there are no bestiality aspects.

The ape learns to talk (echoes here of Kafka’s own A Report to the Academy), accompanies them for a drink and finally hints that his actions may not be unconnected to his species taking revenge on we humans for years of exploitative deforestation and other ecological crimes (the number of orang utans across the globe has fallen by 50 per cent).

Johnson and Chamberlin create the right chemistry of love, occasional frustration and bewilderment as their normal domestic lives are turned upside down and the comic pace rarely flags in Bev Fox’s crisp tight production enthusiastically received by the Customs House audience.

Yeaman has a good ear for comedy and offers an imaginative slant on a well-trodden theatrical area, though contrary to what the programme says the play is not Written and Performed by him. I know, because he was sitting three rows behind me.

I was intrigued by the ending, but it needs to be worked more dramatically, rather than tagged on in slightly jokey fashion as here.

The play is one of the Bitesize commissions from the Queens Hall, Hexham, which looks to create and tour new regional work supporting the north east’s actors and writers, an increasingly difficult task in these straitened times but one that needs support.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer