REVIEW: His Monkey Wife / Aladdin - Original London Casts
From Stage Door Records, here’s a real curiosity. His Monkey Wife and Aladdin are two all-but-forgotten minor works from opposite ends of the 1970s by the English composer/lyricist Sandy Wilson. Their relatively short scores are brought together and re-released on this single disc, and they both prove to be thoroughly charming – even if, like me, you find a little of ‘The Boy Friend’, Wilson’s best-known score, goes a (very) long way.
Of the two, ‘His Monkey Wife’ is the stranger piece. Based on a novel by John Collier, it (according to the extensive liner notes) “tells the tale of an intelligent chimpanzee, Emily, who tricks her master into marrying her because she loves him, and to save him from marrying his obnoxious fiancée”. The plot somewhat defies description – a detailed synopsis is helpfully provided in the liner notes, since the thrust of the narrative appears to have been carried by the book more than the songs - but the show encompasses numbers set in the Congolese jungle, in North London’s bourgeois-bohemian Haverstock Hill, in the reading room at the British Museum, inside a cage at London Zoo, and even a dance number called ‘Doing the Chimpanzee’ late in the second act, when Emily, the titular chimpanzee/wife, has joined the cast of a musical revue.
The writing reflects a very English kind of tongue-in-cheek absurdism; it’s mostly relatively gentle humour, in places strongly reminiscent of Flanders and Swann, and much of it sounds like it was written at least a decade and a half before the show actually premiered in 1971. Viewed from over 40 years later, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does perhaps explain why the show didn’t have much of a life beyond its initial 28-performance run at the Hampstead Theatre Club. The highlight, for me, is ‘Dear Human Race’, in which two chimps offer their scathing commentary on the horrors of the human world from inside their cages in London Zoo, but much of this score proves to be great fun. ‘In Boboma Tonight’ presents a parodically absurd English colonial view of life in Africa, while ‘Haverstock Hill’ skewers the pretensions of Hampstead’s artistic set, and ‘Mad About Your Mind’ is a charmingly daffy intellectual come-on number whose lyrics manage to rhyme “dumb” with “cerebrum”. The tone, almost throughout, is slightly arch and lightly satirical; only occasionally, when the material makes a (rare) turn towards the serious, does the writing somewhat lose its fizz. The actors, led by Robert Swann as the English teacher who finds himself married to his pet chimp, are perfectly in tune with the material, though this is not the kind of score where you’ll find powerhouse singing, and some of the voices are more than a little shaky. It’s a pleasant trifle, a charming anachronism, and a lovely way to waste forty minutes. Just read the synopsis first, don’t question whether anybody involved ever looked up the difference between a monkey and a chimpanzee, and – above all – don’t worry too much about whether any of it makes sense.
The album’s other half – ‘Aladdin’ – is an equally wonderful surprise. Written as the Lyric Hammersmith’s 1979 Christmas show, it’s very definitely a musical rather than a pantomime – in British theatre, panto is this story’s natural home – but it doesn’t stray too far from the version of the story panto audiences will be most familiar with (forget the Disney film/stage show). So, yes, Aladdin’s mother Widow Twankey – sorry, Tuang Kee Chung – is played by a man, and takes a significant role in the plot, and the lyrics and character names trade throughout in a kind of tongue-in-cheek Orientalism that doesn’t always sit very easily next to our present-day attitudes towards cultural appropriation. Like ‘His Monkey Wife’, it’s very, very English; again, the wide-eyed, cheerfully comedic tone has very little to do with the year in which the show was first produced. This is a slice of 1979 that really wants to live somewhere in the mid-50s.
The cast, of course, throw themselves into it with gusto, and they have the advantage of a score which, unlike ‘His Monkey Wife’, offers them a series of showy star turns. Joe Melia is clearly having all kinds of fun camping it up as the widow Tuang Kee in ‘Chopsticks’ (which has nothing to do with Euphemia Allen’s piano exercise), and Elisabeth Welch is a delight as the soothsaying Wise Woman, sinking her teeth and her considerable voice into ‘Written in the Sands’ and ‘Give Him the Old Kung-Fu’ (whose irresistibly silly lyrics rhyme ‘catastrophe’ with ‘Bruce Lee’). The Princess’s ‘There and Then’, sung with her two handmaidens, Sing Hi and Sing Lo (don’t all groan at once), is a delightful Andrews Sisters pastiche. Belinda Lang (yes, of 2point4 Children fame) is tartly winsome in the Song of the Genie of the Ring, and – best of all – Aubrey Woods is a splendidly evil moustache-twirling villain, and his paean to the joys of being ‘Wicked’ is the album’s highlight. Richard Freeman’s Aladdin is perfectly fine, but disappears a little against a cast of more colourful supporting characters; again, the moments where the tone turns serious are the score’s weakest points, and unfortunately Freeman is saddled with both of them.
Good as both scores are, though, they’re possibly best enjoyed separately, one after the other. This is a delightful album, but it’s dessert. You don’t necessarily want to eat it all at a single sitting.
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Aladdin - 1980 Original London Cast His Monkey Wife - 1972 Original London Cast Sandy Wilson Aubrey Woods Elisabeth Welch Richard Freeman Belinda Lang Joe Melia Robert Swann Stage Door STAGE 9043 (CD) Toggle Additional (7)