Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image. Canberra Theatre Centre. 23 Apr 2015
Scores of fellow Generation Xers would be familiar with the popular Japanese produced television series Monkey Magic – most especially the hilarious dubbing. However, some may not know that the television series was actually based on a classic Chinese book called Journey to the West, which was written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th Century. Monkey…Journey to the West incorporates the campiness of the television show, while also sprinkling in modern references and paying a respectful, abridged homage to the original story.
For those who aren’t familiar, the tale centres on Monkey (Aljin Abella), who is an accomplished and ambitious creature who manages to attract the wrath of the Jade Emperor after sneakily making himself immortal while working in heaven and subsequently causing havoc as revenge for being given a lowly position in the hierarchy. Buddha weighs in to assist the Emperor and imprisons Monkey under a mountain for five hundred years as punishment. Monkey is then freed by a monk called Tripitaka (Aileen Huynh), who is instructed to bring Monkey with him as a disciple on his quest to collect three ancient scriptures from the Buddha in India.
On their journey they pick up two more disciples – Pigsy (Darren Gilshenan) and Sandy (Justin Smith), who are also banished from heaven and living out their punishments on Earth. The foursome’s escapade involves all manner of cannibalistic monsters and demons attempting to foil their plans, with Monkey proving to be the superior disciple in terms of protecting his new Master.
There is just so much to love about this artistic melting pot of a production: its indefatigable energy and wicked humour that adults get loud and clear but skims appropriately over the kids’ heads, the nimble acrobatics and martial arts from the supporting cast (Ivy Mak, Lia Reutens, Anthony Taufa, Troy Honeysett, Joshua Tieu, Jair Coronado and Jono Wong), its fantastical costumes, the technically brilliant set that bursts with colour, and the magnificent puppetry that at one point made the grown man next to me breathlessly whisper “…wow” like a mesmerised child who just had their imagination well and truly captured.
The main actors are an absolute joy to watch, really bringing the spirit of this cult favourite to vivid life amidst the whimsical and ever changing backdrop. It is fantastic to see a female actor cast as the sage Tripitaka, and Huynh crafted a really commanding and endearing character. Abella as the ‘Monkey King’ is spectacularly on the mark, creating an infinite sense of adventure and excitement without going over the top.
Gilshenan as Pigsy brings some prime Aussie bogan to the stage, with a plethora of colloquial clangers always at the ready. Smith as Sandy also provides brilliant comic relief with his hippy interpretation of the character – together they seem to resemble the characters Vivian and Neil from The Young Ones, gate-crashing their way through the story with their antics.
Another noteworthy mention goes out to the composer and live solo musician of the evening, Peter Kennard, who works his magic seamlessly just to the side of the stage and contributes greatly to the ambience of the evening.
Of course, Monkey…Journey to the West was in the best of hands, being co-directed by two Sydney theatre greats – John Bell (of Bell Shakespeare) and Kim Carpenter. It is clear that this production is a labour of love, pulling out all the stops to make the evening as enchanting as humanly possible.
One last important aspect of the show is its pluralism; not only is the cast multicultural, but the story itself represents a range of religious, spiritual and cultural perspectives that are actually quite deep in some parts – though this is delivered in a very accessible way.
Without trying to sound trite, this really is a show for the whole family to enjoy and I encourage people to bring the next generation along to discover the magic of Monkey for themselves.
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre