What do you do when you realise that the only thing holding your marriage together is a monkey – and then the monkey dies?
This is the slightly surreal question at the heart of The Dead Monkey, written by Nick Darke in 1986 and recently revived, ten years after his death, in a new production by Mongrel Thumb, directed by Hannah Price. Hank (James Lance) and Dolores (Ruth Gibson) live in a beachside shack in California. Hank’s a travelling salesman who’s on the road for weeks at a time, leaving Dolores behind to take care of his beloved pet monkey. But when the monkey dies, seemingly of old age, it brings the couple’s fifteen-year-old marriage to a turning point, and as secrets are revealed and ultimatums declared, they start to realise their pet may not be the only thing that’s dead.
The decline of a couple’s marriage isn’t a new subject for a play, and there are a lot of ways to approach it – but not too many of them begin with a dead monkey on the coffee table. And this sets the tone for the evening; as mundane as Hank and Dolores’ existence is in many ways – the struggle to make ends meet financially, the endless arguments over Hank’s career, the nostalgic reminiscing about their early days together – you literally never know what’s going to happen next. The play’s a comedy but with a dark twist, and nobody, including the quietly deranged local vet (Charles Reston) seems to react in a normal way to anything. There’s a sense that something has to give, but it’s impossible to predict how or when it’ll happen.
I imagine three such dysfunctional characters must be great fun to play, and the cast certainly seem to be having a great time. James Lance cuts a despondent figure as Hank, a former surfer gone to seed and bewildered as to how it happened; you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Meanwhile Ruth Gibson’s Dolores moves in the blink of an eye from Barbie doll to ice queen, as her unique talent is identified and she begins to discover a world outside her marriage to Hank. The two actors have great chemistry, particularly in the midst of their verbal sparring, and even though you can see Hank and Dolores are disastrous together, you can’t help wishing they could somehow work it out. The line-up is completed by Charles Reston, whose performance as the vet is perhaps the most memorable, simply because the character is so brilliantly bonkers. Part veterinarian, part salesman, his appearance only ever bodes bad news for the couple, and yet each second he’s on stage is a delight for the audience.
The action takes place in Hank and Dolores’ shabby living room, bearing all the marks of neglect and poverty (not to mention the presence of a pet monkey). And yet, just outside their front door is the warm glow of the Californian sunshine, a stark reminder of Hank’s lost youth as a champion surfer, and the golden days of their marriage. A soundtrack from the Beach Boys helps to complete the effect. Each act is presented as one continuous scene, with the characters mooching about, giving us an insight into their everyday lives, and the restlessness in both partners that’s gradually bringing them closer to their moment of truth.
I’m not going to lie, The Dead Monkey is pretty twisted. But it’s also very funny, even if some of the laughter is more out of surprise; the play approaches some taboo issues with its tongue firmly in its cheek. But at its heart is a marriage on the edge of an abyss, and in between all the laughs there’s a feeling of sadness and tension, which slowly builds right up to the shocking conclusion.
The Dead Monkey is on at Park Theatre until 4th July. To book, visit parktheatre.co.uk or call 020 7870 6876.