"In the beginning there was nothing and nothing is everything". This opening and closing phrase sums up the Buddhist philosophy underlying Monkey.
The Young Vic has a reputation for staging alternatives to pantomimes at Christmas. This year's production brings screams of glee from those close to middle age who recall a cult TV series of the 1970s of the same name. The play is derived from the same Chinese source.
This is supposedly a show for all of the family from the age of seven. It is likely that the parents will enjoy it at least as much as the children. There is much action, some Buddhist philosophy and lots of fun as the cartoon-like hero, Monkey crosses the world on a religious mission. Director Mick Gordon has used this opportunity to mix humour, action and a great deal of stage trickery in a very attractive, brightly coloured setting, played in the round.
The plot has great similarities to that other Christmas classic, The Wizard of Oz. In this case, the mission that our heroes set out on from China is to obtain sacred scriptures from the Western Heaven. Monkey, played very energetically in the style of a street performer by Elliot Levey is a real scallywag who is likely to come to a sticky end. His initial entry to loud rock music suggests a WWF wrestler rather than a Buddhist seeking Karma.
He joins his Dorothy, an innocent trainee monk, Tripitaka, (Inika Leigh Wright) on her quest and soon they pick up two other doomed souls. These were formerly condemned to live as a pig and a dragon with fishy overtones. They are respectively brainless and cowardly to continue the parallels with the trip along the Yellow Brick Road.
Along the surreal route, they meet various weird and wonderful monsters and have swashbuckling escapes on a regular basis. The design by Dick Bird is exceptionally colourful both in terms of the set and especially the fantastic costumes. These are seen at their best on the characters of the black-clad Yama, Queen of Death and a trio of shapeshifting demons. This fits very well with a soundscape that tends to be loud but invigorating. This has been produced by the combination of Crispian Covell and the music of Kila.
The children seemed to enjoy the show although some of the scarier moments might well have traumatised the very small ones. There is a reasonable amount of participation of the "behind you" kind and a good sign is that they remained pretty quiet throughout.
Adults who have never grown up will also have a whale of a time. They may appreciate the moral qualities of the superheroes as they fight evil and even the dilemma that Tripitaka faces as she is forced to understand that it is necessary to use violence on occasions. It is likely that many will be more enamoured of the humour and stylised fighting. As well as more normal Bruce Lee style fights there are also duels on clouds way above the stage and wild chases with characters appearing everywhere.
If you are sick of pantos and Harry Potter and you want to take a child to the theatre this Christmas, this could be an ideal solution.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher