A date in a wine bar, a job interview, a group of colleagues taking a break with a magazine; put your fingers in your ears during Chris Goode & Company’s Monkey Bars and you’d think it was a play about thirty to forty-somethings negotiating the ups and downs of professional life. Designer Naomi Dawson’s versatile set consists of luminous cubes, which are stacked and restacked by the cast to create the minimalist office/bar/ conference room that forms the landscape of adulthood. In fact, Goode’s script is a verbatim piece that draws on interviews with children under the age of 11. Dialogue Artist Karl James set up a tape-recorder and elicited kids’ responses to topics from faith to fame, “divorcedness”, and that eternal question, “What is your favourite sweetie?”, which are transposed into grown-up situations by a cast dressed for the boardroom. The effect is an endearing, funny and absurd series of scenes reminiscent of Creature Comforts.
Verbatim theatre seems to be ubiquitous at the moment, though usually in a political, and almost always serious, context (for me it’s forever associated with an awful student production about trafficked prostitutes). The technique is used in a refreshingly light way here; the central idea of Monkey Bars is that when children speak, we all have our fingers in our ears – take a listen to what they say. The untamed, frequently bizarre dialogues contrast brilliantly with recognisable adult set-ups, such as two people boasting about how late their parents let them stay up during half term – over a glass of wine. The tone of Goode’s direction is spot-on, and the skill of the actors is in inflecting a mature delivery of childishly constructed lines.
Not that it’s all fun and games; the premise would quickly wear thin if every scene were played for laughs. Domestic violence, war and preoccupations with the future all feature in the exchanges. Just as James doesn’t patronise his subjects with the questions he asks, often challenging them and encouraging debate, the actors’ delivery does not ridicule the material, but rather acknowledges and plays with it. The excerpts are well chosen, merging the trivial with the profound – apart from the final line of the play, which is predictable and seems a little too formulaic for the rest of the show.
The piece succeeds in bridging a huge generation gap, shedding light on the confused adult world and the surprising wisdom of children. It has a lot of heart, some of which perhaps rubbed off on me; when a group of schoolkids (admittedly older than the interviewees) laughed during one of the darker moments of the show, for the first time I wasn’t tempted to turn around and glare at them.
Monkey Bars played at Warwick Arts Centre and is currently on a national tour. For more shows at Warwick Arts Centre see their website.