SUSANNAH BAIN reviews Celestial Ape at VAULT Festival.
When I arrived at the wonderfully oddly decorated Vaults – splendid lights, mismatched furniture, and an odd mix of old sounds and Carly-Rae Jepsen playing over the speakers – I was expecting only the highest excellence from Celestial Ape. I interviewed writer/performer James King last week, who bewitched me with incredible ideas and plans: an ‘apocalyptic variety show’ in numerous acts, making clever and witty comment on the horrible, post-Trump, post-Brexit predicament we are currently in. This would then be followed by a profoundly moving story, telling of a chimpanzee who goes to space as part of a Russian program. The description of the play, and the ideas underlying it, suggested a piece of brilliantly original and creative theatre.
And though it was both of these things, I was slightly disappointed with what I found. The variety show did not quite meet its description. The sketches, while pulsing with witty ideas, struggled to wholly communicate their commentary to the audience. Things began strongly, with an amusing opener lamenting the absence of male genitalia in the mass media. In a hilarious deadpan, two actors described it as a pressing social issue – their explications accompanied by live specimens on stage. After this was a story about shits and Whatsapp: whilst scripted with obvious poeticism – subtle, layered, and with elements of tragedy – the story was never quite given enough energy. Being largely personal, yet exceedingly dry, the delivery required a the finest balance, and the telling fell slightly short of what it could have been. Further sketches included an entertaining repertoire of songs, but not quite the big numbers promised.
In each case, it was clear what the ambitious company were attempting to achieve: satires of the world around us, commentaries on society that ridiculed the sad state of things, the music we love, and the attitudes we hold. Although they didn’t quite succeed in expressing these concepts, some of the segments were really great. Simran Han gave an excellent TED Talk style presentation on the music videos of Britney Spears as reflection of Late Capitalism. Also featuring were some animations by Harry Partridge – the famous YouTube animator – about a fictional superhero ‘Bee Man’. These displayed a typically-downplayed humour, subtly lamenting the decline of the bee population and its possible side effects, while ridiculing the phenomenon of superheroes and superhero movies. In both cases, a statement was succinctly and cleverly made about the contemporary world.
The second act of the play was immediately more endearing. Kolya the chimpanzee is a beautiful and realistic puppet made by Christopher Barlow, held by two performers and animated beautifully and emotively. The story itself was well-spun – poetic and accompanied by engaging puppetry. This eventually became a grander story, as we learnt about Kolya’s first experience of love, and his capture and training by the Soviet space agency. This is cannily echoed by projected scenes from Tarkovsky’s classic Ivan’s Childhood. The use of film is not surprising, King the writer is obsessed with the film. This act seemed to promise something much greater than the first –it was nuanced and amusing, and managed to communicate some of the message the show as a whole was clearly striving to offer us.
Sadly, such potential was cut short. The house lights suddenly came up mid-scene, and King came on stage to explain they had over-run, and the next company had to take the stage for their performance. This was a great shame, as I was enjoying seeing Kolya’s narrative unfurl.
Celestial Ape was a mixed experience. I have no doubts the team behind it are greatly intelligent, witty, and seriously able to make shows that say something important. Nonetheless, even abortive endings aside, in its current form the production doesn’t seem quite complete. With some finesse to the staging and the overarching narratives, it should make a come back, hopefully hitting the fringe circuit with its plentiful charm, wit, and originality.