Gyre and Gimble’s retelling of the Hartlepool Monkey legend is highly skilful, slick and unsettling. It’s a strangely pitched production. Marketed as a show for adults and kids (the programme features a colouring-in page with the face of the imperilled simian protagonist), it tells the tale of 19th-century Hartlepool folk who mistake a chimpanzee for a French spy during the Napoleonic war. The venal town elders comprise a gin-soaked priest and doctor who control the municipal coffers and encourage parochial prejudices.
The monkey, by turns baleful, dolorous and mischievous, naturally becomes the star of the show. The puppetry is deft and detailed, while the vocal accompaniments – chuffing, chattering and champing – are believable and enchanting. But from the outset we know that the poor monkey is going to be captured and hanged by the mob. The cast, a crack team of engaging performers, draws attention to the story’s foregone conclusion from the outset, while highlighting its pertinence to today’s climate of xenophobia, ignorance and fear. What follows – the doings of the townsfolk amid a clever set of nets, barrels, and sails – becomes something to be endured before the brutal conclusion can be over and done with.
The hanging itself is sensitively curtained, then the limp body revealed. Surely it’s wise to teach children about man’s inhumanity to man and beast, but the methods here are questionable. Noose aside, a scene where the monkey is tied up and hit is extremely distressing, yet the denouement becomes sentimental and saccharine.