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Harlow's Monkeys
Published on Sunday, 13 May 2012

3 stars

Upstairs at Three and Ten (venue website)
10-12 May, 7:00pm-8:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.
 Warning: Contains strong language and nudity.
 World Premiere.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

This is a play with a Surprise.  It’s a good Surprise, creative and funny, and skilfully executed by a committed and energetic cast.  But it’s also a play with an intelligent, multi-layered plot – one which aims to shed insight on a deep-rooted societal problem.  The production’s two aspects work well individually, but together they fight each other, leaving a sense that the script doesn’t quite know what it wants to achieve.

Harlow’s Monkeys, we soon learn, were the simian subjects of a faintly sinister experiment, designed to find out whether babies would bond with wire-model surrogate mothers.  We join the action in the 1980’s, twenty years after Harlow’s lab closed down, and we’re well set up for drama.  There’s an academic with a secret past, a mysterious young visitor to his office, and a sense of impending punishment for a collective shame.

But sadly, that’s precisely when the Surprise kicks in.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s as entertaining and quirky as they’d intended it to be, but it sits uneasily with the tone of the plot.  One crucial emotional scene was bizarrely presented with something really distracting happening in the background – a bit like one of those TV outtakes, where the reporter talks solemnly to the camera while a gang of children bounces around behind them.  More generally, the production struggled to find a balance between horror and comedy, to the extent that I was often confused whether I was supposed to be taking it seriously at all.

And that’s a shame, because the purpose of the newcomer’s visit proves a surprise of a much more thoughtful kind.  By planting a few false assumptions and trailing some simple red herrings, the script cleverly conceals its true message – even though, when the curtain was whisked aside, I realised that I should have spotted the allegory all along.  The actual ending was far too obviously foreshadowed, but the character developments which got us there weren’t at all what I’d expected them to be.

The ever-reliable Bob Gilchrist performs well as the professor, with the superior and other-worldly air of one who’s spent all his time in academe.  Some of his jokes could be better sold, though the humour’s intentionally dry.  Zoe Hinks, as the sassy and punkish visitor, lacked a little subtlety; she delivered her lines with attitude, but counter-intuitively seemed far more powerful when she let a softer voice come through.

In the end, Harlow’s Monkeys achieved what it aimed for; it gave me an interesting new perspective to take away.  It just needs to decide if it’s a comedy or a tragedy – and if it does that, future success wouldn’t be Surprising at all.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.