Monster/Clock at the Smock Alley Boy’s School

October 24, 2013


Towards the end of Monster/Clock, our hero Toby asks the titular villain, “What happens when you drink Mmbela Kolo Pop?” “Simple” he replies. “It leads to an increase of synapses firing and serotonin production, causing a brief but intense feeling of euphoria. It also leaves a nice feeling in the tummy.”

What’s true of Mmbela Kolo Pop is also true of Monster/Clock, Collapsing Horse’s new puppet comedy which ran at Smock Alley Boys’ School in April. With a Do It Yourself aesthetic and sweet yet sinuous performances, the script melds adult humour and universal themes so adroitly that it manages to entertain its target age group (8+) whilst remaining absorbing to an adult audience.

Toby (Jack Gleeson) is considered a monster in the animal world he inhabits, his monstrosity being his humanity. Coddled by his mentor, yet reviled by the animals that visit the clockmakers he resides in, he is locked away from the world, learning the principles of clock-making but none of the skills he needs to truly live. But when his mentor is kidnapped by Burdock and Spencer, the snobby, squash-playing swans, he is forced to explore the “whole galaxy of bravery” he has inside, to save the day and learn the final clock-making lesson – the measure of time.

Setting off for Tempora City, where his master is being held captive, Toby discovers a world that will be familiar to any adult in attendance: a people enslaved by nefarious cretins, their futures stolen so that a heartless monster can be kept alive, as its servants feather their nest with the fat of the land. The parallels with the rulers of unsovereign Ireland are clear. But writer Eoghan Quinn uses the format of a quest narrative to keep the piece from feeling pontifical. We are taken on a thrilling high sea adventure, a nail-biting ride in a hot air balloon, an epic stumble into the layer of a demonic mastermind, and spend a terrifying spell in a haunted wood. Along the way we meet a variety of characters – wise, cantankerous and amusingly accented – each helping to move the story along and underline the lesson Toby must learn.

Aaron Heffernan’s puppets, attached to the performer’s shoulder or operated with sticks, feed the fantasy that Toby is the monster, their crude yet mesmeric design endowing instant personality. Dan Colley’s shrewd direction utilises many theatrical forms – puppetry, miniatures, shadow play – with a grace that hides its thread, so fluidly do the performers move from one thing to the next. It’s a credit to the directorial hand that it seems so sparing.

The Smock Alley space is levelled by the sheer force of Collapsing Horse’s imagination, and rebuilt through the complementary efforts of Colm McNally’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ set and subtle lighting, and Emma Gleeson’s sensuous costumes, which give you a feel for the world the animals live in, yet which are adapted easily to indicate a change of location. All hands are on deck as a stepladder on wheels, a patch sheet and an old trunk are manipulated to create a ship, a shop and the pulpit from which a cannibalistic witch doctor unleashes his demonic chants, all made possible by the restraint and commitment of an airtight ensemble.

Jack Gleeson brings a credible cluelessness to Toby that is utterly convincing without ever being saccharine. His ability to subtly respond to what both the puppets and performers are doing allows us to commit to the conceit that the latter aren’t there, while writer Quinn and puppet master Heffernan, in a variety of parts, are ceaseless bundles of energy that combine the tricks of the comedic trade (accents, funny voices and self-aware asides) with heart and intelligence so that they never grate.

Kate Kennedy as Father Time and Clare O’Malley as Toby’s mentor so perfectly embody their parts that they help us believe when women play men, people play monsters, and puppets are people; and mention must be made about the heavenly arias of the chorus, composed by Danny Ford who plays the pagan percussive score with drummer Greg Purcell. The gorgeous four part harmonies fill in the backstory, move us along, and occasionally talk directly to Toby, allowing our imaginations to seamlessly flow where the writer wants them to go.

The pace never dropped in the sixty plus minutes of this feat of imagination which, through the commitment of the performers and the bravery of the production team, made a whole world come to life before our eyes, feeding our imagination and trusting that we could do the rest ourselves.

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