Review: Hartlepool Monkey, Northern Stage, Newcastle

Hartlepool Monkey uses puppets to bring the character to life.
Hartlepool Monkey uses puppets to bring the character to life.

Nothing ever happens in Hartlepool...

So goes one of the tongue-in-cheek songs in this play, which takes the 200-year-old myth to create a show with alarming modern day resonance.

The show has been taken on the road across the country.

The show has been taken on the road across the country.

The Hartlepool Monkey is inspired by the tale of how the town's folk once hung a monkey, with a nod to the statue now standing in its honour and how its football club mascot became mayor.

It follows the escapades of primate Napoleon, nicknamed to mock the political and military leader by his cruel shipmates, who washed up when his French warship is sunk.

Having never seen or heard one before, people fear the short and hairy animal is a Frenchman and hang him believing he is a spy in the Napoleonic Wars.

Its opening line reveal the grim ending for Napoleon, but the journey to reach it and its closing scenes are worth following.

The cast members bring Napoleon to life through movement and sound.

The cast members bring Napoleon to life through movement and sound.

Along the way we meet the widower inn keeper and his precious son, rolled in cotton wool and desperate for independence, along with the barmaid and cook left waiting for her forces husband to return from war.

I'm sure the questions on Hartlepudlians' minds will be are North East accents Vera-level bad and is it offensive about the town and its people?

Far from it - the pitch is just right, with a healthy sense of pride and a strong fight for success and survival.

Instead, it is the doctor and clergyman, snooty and corrupt (Southern) outsiders, who lead the hunt and persecution of poor Napoleon, while his friend and fellow stowaway Clemence does her best to protect him.

The seven-strong cast of The Hartlepool Monkey.

The seven-strong cast of The Hartlepool Monkey.

While the themes of friendship, love and standing up against bullies are morals to take home, the story is used to look at issues affecting our country right now.

A distrust and dislike of outsiders, not only the French but neighbouring Middlesbrough, used with much humour here, extreme patriotism and mass hysteria are all touched on.

Napoleon himself has been created by Gyre and Gimble, the team behind the equines in the award-winning War Horse.

In the same way those animals move around the stage, so too does Napoleon, with the added dexterity and lifelike quality added by the actors behind him using their own hands inside gloves in the feet and hands as the mischievous tyke leaps around the stage.

He may be a prop, but you fall for his cheek and charms, which is especially hard to take when that fateful moment comes.

I admit to having a tear in my eye and lump in my throat.

It was brutal, with the point that this production is aimed at older children sticking in my mind as I watched.

But like all good myths, this is given a reprieve thanks to the happy-ever-after storylines of romance and acceptance, which save the day.

The cast do a fantastic job of bringing the legend to life, multitasking as characters, singing and even speaking in French, which is in turn translated for the audience, and I especially enjoyed the emotive songs.

The show is written by Carl Grose and produced by Fuel in association with Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

It continues at Northern Stage until Wednesday, with more details available via http://northernstage.co.uk/whats-on/the-hartlepool-monkey.

Its tour takes in Hartlepool itself, when it will visit the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday, November 14, and Wednesday, November 15.

For more details visit https://www.destinationhartlepool.com/.