Royal Theatre review: The Complete Deaths

Aitor Basauri was one of the highlights

Aitor Basauri was one of the highlights

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I came to this production of The Complete Deaths an utter Spymonkey junkie.

Everything I've seen by this genius four-piece modern clown act I've lapped up, from the Barbarella-style Oedipussy to the madcap Cooped.

Toby Park and Basauri

Toby Park and Basauri

I'd been looking forward to seeing their unique take on the 75 onstage Shakespeare deaths for months, the expectation further heightened by missing a sneak preview at the Royal & Derngate earlier this year.

And perhaps that was the problem. Maybe I expected too much but The Complete Deaths wasn't up to the previous sky-high standards.

Let me clarify that - in parts, it was very good indeed. The (surprisingly sparse) audience loved the weirdo dancing, the pretend intimate moments 'accidentally' captured on camera backstage, the reliably superb Spaniard Aitor Basauri - like a large, preening (hairy) Iberian child - the bizarre shouty-ness of German Stephan Kriess - even the trademark full-frontal nudity, had us in stitches.

But these moments, as numerous as they were, didn't flow. Rather, the whole thing was an archipelago of delight in a sea of arty awkwardness.

The ridiculous dances are show deftness as well as daftness.

The ridiculous dances are show deftness as well as daftness.

Again, I want to blame myself. For Oedipussy, a deep knowledge of the original text was hardly a requirement, it veered so far from actual story that such reading was redundant.

But with my less-than-comprehensive knowledge of the Bard's complete folio, I was often lost in The Complete Deaths, straining to pick out familiar words and, now and again, a bit bored.

I had previously thought that Shakespeare's soaring prose would bridge any gap and convey its meaning with clarity. But I'm genuinely sad to say that the delivery of the dramatic lines was muffled by accents, over straining and over-wailing so that the serious bits were significantly spoilt.

It is one of the inner plots that Toby Park, the musically talented one, is making the team perform the deaths (counted down throughout the performance on an electronic scoreboard) overly - and, we are meant to think, comically - cerebral.

Instead, for me, large tracts felt genuinely overwrought. Park, often so sparklingly brilliant seemed to have lost the audience in the very first scene, challenging us by a just-about tongue-in-cheek monologue, saying we would have to work hard to enjoy this one. Perhaps it was our fault. We were expecting ridiculous pratfalls and all manner of goonery from the off, but when the first indulgent titter fails to emerge after planting your flag so boldly, the audience can fail to recover.

And in one section where, in mock-angst, Park asked us all to be quiet for a minute to think about problems in the Middle East, he admitted the 'resistance' in the room. It went on too long.

Towards the end, when the other cast members rebel against Park, they slightly embarrassingly hit the nail on the head. The audience wants fun not all the arty, complicated stuff.

I genuinely believe the cast wanted to do the former but, on that particular night at least, fell short of the mark.

But let's end on a high note, when it was at its silly, baffling, crazy, insane best, it touched the heights of past Spymonkey hits. It showed them at their creative best and reminded us why they remain some of the best comic performers in the UK today. I'm still smiling at some of Basauri's daftness, like when he purposely bumps his head to get sympathy during a sobbing session.

I hope anyone reading this who intends to go tonight and tomorrow is not too discouraged by the thought.

Just as Park says, we are made to toil, but we discover a few diamonds for our troubles.

It reminds us that, if they stick to the basics, nobody can get near Spymonkey.