Review: Monkey Journey to the West

Princess Iron Fan

Princess Iron Fan artwork…

Last week I went to the O2 to see the Albarn/Hewlett production of Monkey Journey to the West. My interest in such a thing—apart from a nostalgic fondness for the cheesey Monkey TV series—was fuelled mainly by an appreciation of Jamie Hewlett's wonderful artwork. The show really did manage to extend the illustrations onto the stage, and, to be fair to the sometimes rather annoying Mr Albarn, the music worked well too. It helped that I had hooked up with a long-unmet friend for the event, but even without that bonus I realised, when the interval came, that I'd had a big monkey grin on my face for the whole first half. It's a show not to be taken seriously, and it really was a lot of fun.

My favourite part was probably Princess Iron Fan, because she had a lieutenant who was incredible foxy with the best costume and great spiky hair. But I liked the way Tripitaka (played by Yao Ningning) walked the way you knew Hewlett would have animated him (her). Cao Jiangtao in the eponymous role of Sun Wu Kong (that's Monkey to you) was tremendous too, maintaining his monkey swagger and monkey bravado throughout.

Mind you, the special Chinese meal, available in the "Monkey's World" restaurant as part of the experience in the big black tent, was woeful. In fact it would have been laughable had it not been so expensive. London has great Chinese restaurants, both pricey and cheap, so it's frustrating to have given them a miss for something that was badly cooked and inaccurately served. Missed my lap; but the guy on the next table wasn't so lucky.

Princess Iron Fan

…and on stage

An intriguing aspect of the project is that the official MJTTW website is plainly based on the Fudebakudo website. This website is itself based on Fudebakudo's esoteric design principles, of course: see the FAQ on Why is everything black, white, and red? if you don't believe me.

Unfortunately the official trailer for the Monkey show is cut together so wildly you really can't make much out, so I haven't bothered linking to it. It's an odd thing to do in a publicity video because it makes you think they're deliberately hiding something by taking it away before you can see it properly. Instead, the short film Monkey Bee gives a good flavour of the music and the playfulness of the project (you also get to see some of the cast — although the film has been done in a wonderfully vintage cinematic style instead of simply using the scenes, make-up, and costumes of the stage production). What's more, thanks to the helpful subtitles, you can sing-along (in Mandarin) in Youtube karaoke!