Review: Monkey Bars

★★★★☆
Four stars

Part way through Monkey Bars, a familiar situation is presented: a panel of three interviewers sits facing their tense victim, who is isolated on the distant other side of the desk. “What is…” — the central interrogator begins the question in the severe but bored tones of an academic — “…Your favourite sweetie?” Nervously but willingly he lists his favourites, later adding bubblegum in a clumsy jolt of inspiration. Regarding this answer with a look of intellectual disdain, she continues the sophisticated train of thought: “And what would you do if you were a bubblegum creature?” 
 
I’m sure we all wish that interviews could be conducted in such a way, but sadly only in the world of Monkey Bars — where words taken from interviews of children are performed by adults acting as adults — does this happen. A number of scenes share this structure of children’s discussions taking place in parallel adult situations, with hilarious and thought-provoking results. The intimate, softly-lit romantic dinner for two is the perfect setting for a conversation about dreams — though maybe not about the terror of being chased by a nightmare blue bee. The politicians at the podium, having been asked what they’d do if they ruled the world, answer and argue in terms about as coherent as most real politicians, made particularly disconcerting by the sweeping grandness of their gestures and highly rhetorical delivery — while they share their dreams of a world where there are no robbers, and everyone can run around in the sunshine flying kites. The age-old debate of the relative merits of being a girl or a boy is presented (boys versus girls, obviously) with a Jeremy Paxman-like mediator, though frequently threatens to turn into a juvenile episode of Jeremy Kyle.

The creativity and range of the situations speaks for how tailored their design is to the concerns of the audience, and humour is created even down to the level of lighting, sound and set. But weightier concerns aren’t passed over, and the peculiar form is perfect for conveying a child’s capacity to normalise experiences of the deeply, worryingly abnormal. It is the scene which gives the play its title, though lighter in content than some, which is crucial: a child falls from the playground monkey bars, is sent to the medical room and reassured that their arm is only bruised, when in fact it is broken. Scenes like this speak for understanding how people, especially the otherwise voiceless, become damaged: hurt a tiny bit at a time, they’re dismissed until they’re broken.

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But the play isn’t a non-stop moral lesson, and we’re constantly reminded that these are children who, if they get bored of the conversation, can ask “Is it playtime yet?” (Give that a try in your next tutorial). The otherwise excellent cast sometimes slip into acting a little too like children, when the play requires the opposite. It also doesn’t help that as students they don’t have the look of full maturity that would create the maximum contrast between the words and their delivery. But predominantly they capture the absorbing essence of the play in all its disconcerting hilarity.