The Vaults, London – until 27 August 2017
Guest reviewer: Oliver Wake
Like its eponymous ape, this King Kong pastiche is a strange beast. Director Owen Lewis‘ production doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a string of sketches with common characters linked by a vague plot or a genuine comic play. It falls somewhere between the two.
Daniel Clarkson‘s script is slow to get going, with few really good laughs until the cast of characters are well on their way to Skull Island. The opening scenes could certainly have been reduced. The humour is broad, with a mix of verbal gags and practical buffoonery. The jokes are variable: some land well but many are hackneyed and predictable. The best gag is a mischievous wordplay (listen out for a hilarious line regarding a fox hat), but overall it has greater success with its physical comedy. There’s a great sequence involving a seaman’s encounter with the tentacle of an amorous giant squid.
Where King Kong really impresses is in its creative staging, with resourceful use of stage space by director Owen Lewis and designer Simon Scullion. The single set used throughout is cleverly designed to accommodate a variety of production methods, rather than to symbolise any particular location, though its art deco styling neatly chimes with that of the Empire State building, which it represents for the conclusion. Conventional drama is mixed with sequences of puppetry and animated models depicting the larger-scale elements of the story, which provides welcome visual variety.
This imaginative stagecraft is not without its risks. At one point in the performance I attended, the hand of a part-puppet (actor’s head, puppet body) fell off in full view of the audience, causing much hilarity. The cast gamely improvised around the unexpected mishap but it doesn’t reflect so well on the play that this accident made for one of its most amusing scenes.
The show’s main problems are that the plot is never pursued with enough vigour to make the play compelling and the jokes are often too weak to distract from the languid storytelling. Ultimately, while never less than entertaining, King Kong fails to coalesce into a coherent whole. Its script needs to be tighter, its gags sharper.