The Frogs | Review of Spymonkey’s messy take on an ancient comedy classic © Manuel Harlan
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The Frogs

Review of Spymonkey’s messy take on an ancient comedy classic

Are the old ones the best? That’s the hypothesis comedy troupe Spymonkey are putting to the test with this updated version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs – first performed in 405 BCE and said to be one of the oldest examples of the double act.

Certainly the archetypes to which central characters conform is still familiar today. Dionysus is the vain, pretentious god heading to the bowels of Hades to follow in the sandalled footsteps of Heracles. He’s accompanied on his quixotic odyssey by the mortal, Xanthias, a simple, pranksterish fool whose idiocy nonetheless contains greater wisdom than his pompous master could ever possess.

Aristophanes was ahead of his time in other ways, too. The play ends with the ancient version of a rap battle, while he was a pioneer of breaking the fourth wall. The characters often address the audience about how the show and its jokes are going, or undermine theatrical conventions such as the whispered aside

Spymonkey throw themselves into such deconstruction wholeheartedly, readily abandoning the story and embracing the amateurism, freely acknowledging when things are a bit rubbish. 

Yet this often weakens the production, with ideas undermined before they are established. Meanwhile the narrative gets itself tied in so many digressive knots and layers it’s hard to care what’s happening. Comic verve is too quickly dissipated, never quite crescendoing to the vibrant anarchy required. They may joke about being slapdash - but when the energy slumps, that rings a little too true.

The Frogs

There is a clever, cathartic reason for Spymonkey to be tackling the play. In the original, Dionysus (Toby Park) and Xanthias (Aitor Basauri) embark on their quest as they want to bring back brilliant playwright  Euripides from the dead. And Spymonkey’s Stephan Kreiss died in 2021 at the age of 59, and the pair seeking his return becomes part of the meta-narrative.

The troupe are also without Petra Massey, who moved to Las Vegas, where she hosts the Atomic Saloon cabaret show – a double loss leaving the remaining duo to wonder if they might have lost their mojo, or whether this means a more concentrated focus on the central double act that could rejuvenate them.

True to form, this debate becomes another strand fighting for attention, and that’s even before we get to the tiresome trope of this whole show being a tryout for a potential billionaire benefactor.

Ironically, though, it’s not the old hands that are the best thing about The Frogs, but new recruit Jacoba Williams, who is versatile and silly in playing all the other roles, bursting with an appealing comic energy. Park and especially Basauri have their foolish moments too, and understand the traditional double-act dynamic, but find it hard to shine among the overgrowth of theatrical business and in-jokes choking out the comic momentum.

However, the real stars of the show, which the company co-wrote with Carl Grose, are the magnificent and inventive costumes from designer Lucy Bradridge.

The Frogs

Spymonkey pioneered this brand of low-budget epic that’s now become a crowded genre, especially at the Edinburgh Fringe.  But it seems they’ve been overtaken by those they inspired – Crybabies’ drum-tight offerings spring to mind.

In contrast, The Frogs feels like a messy collection of  sketches, a few great, many mediocre and underpowered, in search of a more powerful engine to properly capitalise on the performers’ charm and silliness.

• The Frogs runs at The Kiln Theatre, Kilburn, North London until March 2

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Review date: 14 Feb 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Kiln Theatre

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