Great Apes

Will Self adapted by Patrick Marmion
Arcola Theatre and Stepping Out Theatre
Arcola Theatre (Studio 1)

Donna Berlin as driver, Stephen Ventura as George Levinson, Bryan Dick as Simon Dykes and Vivienne Smith as Sarah Peasenhulme Credit: Nick Rutter
Ruth Lass as Zack Busner and Stephen Ventura as Kevin Whately Credit: Nick Rutter
Ruth Everett, Bryan Dick as Simon Dykes, Donna Berlin and John Cummins Credit: Nick Rutter
Ruth Everett as Jane Bowen and Vivienne Smith as Sarah Peasenhulme Credit: Nick Rutter

Turner-prize winning painter Simon Dykes has just finished the paintings for a new exhibition that all feature chimpanzees and goes off to party with his gallery’s owner and to meet up with is current girlfriend.

A cocktail of drugs and alcohol later, he wakes up in bed with her to find that she is a chimpanzee: and it is not just her, all the “people” look and behave like chimpanzees. He’s freaked out and so are they by his frightening behaviour so they send for the medics.

Simon finds himself in a mental hospital, in the care of an eminent but unconventional psychiatrist, Zack Busner, to be cured of his delusion that he is human and that humans are the dominant species, the humans whom he has painted in the work for his new exhibition.

Species dominance apart, this is a world recognizable as almost our own, posturing smart society, Guardian readers, competitive colleagues, bohemian indulgence and Hampstead Heath with its ”pan-sexual opportunities“. As a naturalist chimp who has made a study of humans declares, “for all our superiority, the only characteristic setting us apart from humans is perhaps self-importance.”

The differences from human behaviour: perineal swelling considered the height of female beauty with its related mating practices, and the whooping and confrontations as social interaction, the hierarchical offering of rear ends in formal encounters are a continual reminder that these are chimpanzees but at the same time emphasise how similar everything else is, for this is, of course, a satirical look at humanity.

There is a plea for species tolerance; concern for the loss of species but no one yet seems concerned about ecology (Self’s book came out in 1997) and there is no mention of conflict between nations so perhaps this world is without it.

The play doesn’t really tell us anything new about ourselves but there is a humorous edge to the way that chimpanzee culture breaks human taboos with its normal behaviour as well as seeing typical human domestic and professional relationships satirised.

Simon Dykes doesn’t seem a particularly nice guy but Bryan Dick makes you feels sympathy for his confusion, after here he is the underdog. (By the way, dogs are quite large and not pets, while horses are small.) Ruth Everett as Jane Bowen presents a caring medic but Stephen Ventura’s Whitely and John Cummins’s Gambol are out to undermine Dr Burner and replace him.

Ruth Lass, cast cross-gender, makes a splendid Burner, Alpha Shrink of the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust. It's a performance that dominates a production in which director Oscar Pearce and movement director Jonnie Riordan have done a great job in producing such simian simulations.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

Are you sure?