Towards the end of Richard Gadd’s extraordinary hour long performance of Monkey See Monkey Do, he turns to the audience and asks if any of us had read up about the show beforehand. Only two people put their hands up. “Must have been a bit of a shock, I guess?” he asks, eliciting a half-embarrassed, half-relieved laughing response. I didn’t put my hand up, because I took his question literally; I hadn’t read about it, but I had heard about it on a personal recommendation from someone who said this was the best show they saw in Edinburgh last year. And that’s why Mrs Chrisparkle and I braved both the southern reaches of Storm Doris and nasty head colds to see the show in person.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. To take on extremely serious subject matter and weave it into a multimedia experience, led by Richard Gadd pounding away on his treadmill for the first 45 minutes or so, is some feat. There’s loads to laugh at; there’s loads to empathise with; there are some elements that might make you recoil in horror, depending on your own personal experiences. I normally try to avoid giving much away about the material used in a comedy show, but for this account to make any sense I really have to give the game away – so if you don’t want to read the ultimate in spoilers, please come back at the next blog post!
First we see Mr Gadd being chased and hounded by a monkey. It’s his monkey. It represents his own, particular burden in life. We all have a monkey or two of our own, but for the most part he’s behind bars in a zoo and we rarely have to visit him. Mr Gadd’s monkey is, shall we say, a little more persistent. Next, we see him participating in the Man’s Man Contest – an imaginary battle between ultra blokey blokes, with the truly tough challenge of multitasking four really manly tasks against the clock. He rises to the challenge, performing the first three with adept shows of true strength and masculinity. The fourth task is to sing a really manly song, something heavy metallish (sorry I’m personally not manly enough to have recognised it), and, in (almost) fine tune, he multitasks successfully to the finishing line. But wait – a steward’s inquiry – and it’s revealed that he’s taken illegal substances to finish the quest – science proves that underlying that really manly song he’s also singing the chorus to YMCA. It’s a lovely spoof on the whole manly/masculinity/man’s man idea and its general ridiculousness is extremely funny.
But, as a stark comparison, there’s a harsh reality behind it all. Six or so years ago, Mr Gadd was drugged at a party, and knew nothing of what happened next until the next morning – when he realised he had been raped. No one’s laughing now. In a series of filmed meetings with an analyst, the truth about what happened and its effects on him are slowly revealed. In tandem with this, we see him out on his fitness run, constantly anxious that anything he does might betray his perceived lack of masculinity, because the rape has robbed him of his own definition of what masculinity is. Previously, he just used to be a man; now, he no longer knows what that means. He feels that every pair of eyes that notice him can see through him and know what he did (even though it was actually done to him). He used to like the person he was, but that person no longer exists. His sexuality was messed up by the assault; now his sexual orientation is all over the place – a daily voyage of discovery.
He meets Justin, his best friend, on his run; but Justin doesn’t say hello back. There are all sorts of reasons why that might have been but, naturally, his anxieties dictate it must mean that he doesn’t like him anymore. He meets Hannah, his ex-girlfriend, but his anxieties mean he can’t hear what she is saying to him, only his own worries about how he is presenting himself to her. In a moment that revealed one of my own insecurities, there’s a brief but brilliant sequence about how you react when you know your WhatsApp message has been received but the recipient doesn’t reply back. The man’s a seething volcano of anxieties, yet it’s such a clever construct to make this whole experience funny whilst at the same time you see how totally debilitating it is for him.
Technically it’s a fascinating piece, with a very complex audio and visual plot that at times becomes a veritable fugue of conversations, pieces of music, animal noises and other sound effects; it’s like an orchestra playing a symphony of sounds with Mr Gadd as lead soloist coming in live with the most significant passages. Some of it is addressed directly to the audience, some of it to himself, some to the cast of acquaintances that he meets along the way. No matter which, it’s always arresting, and I found myself hanging on his every word for that additional clue that would piece together the jigsaw that is his troubled soul (his description).
It goes without saying that this is a very brave performance; it’s about as self-revealing as one could imagine. We’ve seen a number of comedians perform shows that take their own depression and use it as an inspiration for a routine or who create a show as a catharsis for dealing with their own mental health issues – from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dave Chawner and Damian Kingsley spring to mind. But you can’t call this stand-up, it’s more a multimedia confessional that never shies away from the damage that one event can do to a human being. At the end, Mr Gadd concludes that simply by talking about what happened you won’t kill the monkey but you’ll learn how the two of you can live together, and that’s the most excellent advice.
A show like no other – funny, moving, horrific, and with so many emotions in between. Mr Gadd’s just embarked on a tour with his monkey and they’re coming to a theatre near you. Go and see why he’s been nominated for a Chortle award for Best Show. Brilliant and unforgettable.