Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre review: The Man Called Monkhouse, reviewed by The Scotsman’s Paul Whitelaw.
The shock is instant when actor/impressionist Simon Cartwright arrives on stage as Bob Monkhouse in this triumphant one-man play. His resemblance to the late comedian is so complete, it’s actually quite eerie. He captures every grimace and leer of that perma-tanned face, every oscillating idiosyncrasy of that unmistakable voice, with laser-like accuracy.
But this isn’t just a showcase for Cartwright’s mimicry, extraordinary though it is. Writer Alex Lowe has sculpted a heartfelt tribute to a multi-faceted performer who was often misunderstood during his lifetime. Though packed with uproarious gags, it’s an essentially serious and largely successful attempt to understand the man behind the slick public facade.
Set in 1995, when Monkhouse was enjoying a late career revival after years of being unfairly dismissed as a dinosaur, it uses two incidents from that year as springboards into his life story and the contradictions of his character.
The theft of two of his joke books made headline news at the time. Their loss pained him greatly. It was as if, by stealing these cherished artefacts, meticulously compiled by Monkhouse over decades, someone had stolen a part of his soul.
It’s possible, as Lowe suggests, that his obsessively curated film and television archive – the play is set in his teeming study – was indicative of a personality disorder. Lowe’s Monkhouse claims he was incapable of feeling guilt about his extra-marital affairs, and when he tries to pen a eulogy for his tragic former comedy partner Denis Goodwin, the play’s other narrative trigger, he disguises his feelings with a constant stream of gags. But Lowe also shows that Monkhouse was deeply wounded by the criticism that he was smarmy and insincere. More importantly, he was devastated when a tabloid newspaper wrote an exploitative, mendacious story about his beloved son, who had cerebral palsy.
Appropriately slick and snappy in execution – Monkhouse himself would surely have approved – this is that rare thing; a play about a comedian that captures why they were funny while, without resorting to tears-of-a-clown clichés, digs sensitively into their psyche.
Assembly Hall (Venue 35) until 31 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 11 August 2015
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