It begins at the end. The year is 1815 and a French warship is wrecked off the east coast of England in the small town of Hartlepool. Devastated by the Napoleonic Wars, the townsfolk are apprehensive of an invasion, so when two surviving members of the crew are washed ashore, their suspicions are confirmed. The continental raiders – a cabin girl and a chimpanzee in military uniform – are detained by the Hartlepudlians and the monkey is held under suspicion of being a French spy. Having never seen a Frenchman before and only coming across satirical drawings of the French as monkey-like creatures, the townsfolk attempt to question the chimpanzee under trial to ascertain his guilt. Naturally, the monkey is unable to answer their questions and so is sentenced to death by hanging.

Brought to life by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié of Gyre and Gimble, the tale of The Hartlepool Monkey is told by a riotous crew through sea shanties and impish puppetry. Inspired by the urban myth, the production is directed by Caldwell and Olié, who met whilst performing in the original production of War Horse. 

Designed by Samuel Wyer, the set shifts between the French warship ‘Les Terribles’ and ‘The King George’, an English pub run by a good-natured innkeeper and his sickly son Billy. Barrels and shipping crates are located amongst fishing nets and turquoise decking while climbing ropes are knotted, drawing the bow and stern of the stage together. Sails are rigged above – the fabric is bunched and then released into the wind, propelling the barge into the eye of the narrative.

Carl Grose’s script is carefully written and works to make religion and wealth transparent as devices to create fear within its characters. Subsequently, moral agency instils the value of positive characteristics as a lesson for the youth and as a reminder for those of age. The cast of seven sing in both French and English, translating the former when necessary. Mother tongues collide and explode in conversation, highlighting the ever-growing language barrier between the two cultures, as well as the communicative gap separating childhood and adulthood.

Quick costume changes riddle the action with pantomime humour and each part is met with fantastic characterisation. However, it is the part of Napoleon the chimpanzee that makes the most profound impression upon its audience. Assisted by up to three puppeteers, Napoleon is startlingly lifelike. Flecked with light and dark tones, its coat resembles bark. The circles beneath his rich, chocolate eyes look like the concentric growth rings found within the anatomy of a tree and almost feathered, the puppet takes flight, swinging from the boat-knotted rope hanging about the stage.

Caldwell and Olié’s ingenious craftsmanship allows for a powerful relationship with Napoleon and it is this emotional investment that causes the conclusion of the production to be so potent. The story of The Hartlepool Monkey is as entertaining, as it is devastating and Gyre and Gimble have worked well to make a legend, legendary.

The Hartlepool Monkey played at Stratford Circus until September 30 and will be touring to Worthing, Southamptom, Salford, Exeter, Margate, Hartlepool and Liverpool. Find out more here.

Photo: Dan Tsantil