A drab council flat in Bermondsey is the home of Thick Al (George Whitehead), a small-scale drug dealer, who owes money to Tel (Morgan Watkins), a paranoid schizophrenic. Dale (Daniel Kendrick) is Tel’s old pal, a co-conspirator in thievery, and Becks (Danielle Flett) is a love interest, dressed in a rather fetching hot pink Juicy Couture tracksuit number. The play is all about the uneasy politics of these damaged heroin addicts.
The amount of money owed, and hence the name of the play, is a “monkey” (or £500). The money was given under false pretences, and as Tel discovers one lie (the money was meant to help the cost of a funeral, for someone who isn’t dead), the others refuse to divulge the whole truth, since they fear incurring his wrath, and rightly so. Tel has a touch of Ronnie Kray about him: temperamental, prone to violent outbursts, with a particular affection for the notorious Madsen torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. Watkins makes for a brilliantly terrifying gangster: twitchy, coiled, ready to strike – someone you really wouldn’t want to enrage.
The Monkey moves in gripping cycles of war and peace. Dale and Tel share a fond recollection of the “old days”, although Tel is much changed, now moved away from Bermondsey to run his own crime ring. Tel is dressed in a neat blue suit, allergic to the dirt of the apartment block, and he even wipes down a step with a Kleenex so he can perch. The pair enjoy nostalgic memories, but the red mist soon descends: Tel grabs Dale by the throat, half-throttling him, before he can clear his head and see reason; he is quick to lurch into ferocity. The money is not the issue, instead it’s the principle of the lie that Tel cannot abide by – he feels the need to reassert his authority as kingpin of the reprobates.
Thick Al’s flat is in need of a mother’s love. All there is to offer in terms of food is Wotsits and Jaffa Cakes – hospitality at its limpest. Al is given to lobbing his used sharps out of the window, which is perhaps a comment on his sense of community living: life is a free-for-all. In this dog eat dog world, where alliances can quickly break, and friends turn on each other, there is a poignant cost behind all the masculine bravado: vying to be the best crook takes a severe mental toll. Tel’s migration away has done nothing to improve his character, and it seems that all the characters are trapped by these four shabby walls.
Tel calls the voices in his head “lousy lispers” (i.e. “whispers”), which is a funny enough stab at making his own Cockney rhyming slang, but it proves a reluctance to properly open up about his mental health, and he is even later called “the goose” (i.e. “screw loose”). The play is a window into the harsh reality of the criminal world, a world of transactions and debts, where moments of tenderness are balanced by explosive friction. The writing resonates with dark truth and, at times, is very accomplished in its humour, which all works to create an exciting dynamic of laughter and sadness.