After Herman Melville
Spymonkey and Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring
"Call me Ishmael." Many people know the beginning lines though often little about the novel, but Spymonkey has decided to give this whale of a story wider appreciation. Not so much through the means of drama as of comedy: this is an epic but more Python-style than Melville. The battle becomes not that of Captain Ahab and the white whale as that of actor-manager Tony Parks and his compagnie d'acteurs.
A send-up of over-ambitious theatre, using an ambitious range of theatrical skills, well crafted set and props and a very versatile group of just four manic performers.
Ishmael (Aitor Basauri) is the bashful, somewhat incompetent narrator who immediately gained the love of the audience and also impressed with his transformation into the eponymous cetacean, a lycra-clad superhero.
Perfectly balancing the lovable narrator is Tony Parks (Tony Parks) who also plays Captain Ahab, but for the most part is a director on an ego trip, at war with his cast, a war which allows this comedy to steam ahead through waves of audience laughter.
The almost mute cannibalistic harpooner (Stephan Kreiss) provides a Harpo Marx addition to the action on the boat, continuous clowning capers, while Petra Massey plays the various female characters, few of whom feature in Melville's (virtually) all male tale.
Massey is a continual source of energy and humour and, aside from the random female characters most of whom Parks seeks to hoist from the stage, she does a great turn as the puppeteer of the Pequod's smallest crew member Pip the black cabin boy. Which could be a little on the bad taste side but is saved by being unbelievably funny.
It is slightly wrong to describe the performance from the perspective of individuals as, far from the onstage cast infighting, this is a very tight troupe who complement each other perfectly and as seamlessly as a really good dance or circus group.
The action of the first half has more narrative to sustain it, while the second did appear a little flat. However the second half does have some of the best ensemble work.
Particularly entertaining were the whale dance - a kind of warped Disney, vibrant colours but still very much a sense of the actors beneath the elaborate costumes - and also the pythonesque song of the mermaid figurehead about her lack of genitals which I'm sure would make Eric Idle jealous.
This was more than just panto-Moby Dick. Though Toby Parks' Ahab did at times seem more Captain Hook, Parks also did have an eloquent speech near there end that did tie up the show rather nicely.
Also there was a great sense of inventiveness and intimacy about the performance, really bringing the audience in on the joke.
Let your copy of Moby Dick gather dust on your shelf as long as you like but see this piece while you have the chance.
Beth O'Brien reviewed this production at the Lyric, Hammersmith
Reviewer: Seth Ewin