‘As Macbeth said to Hamlet in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “We’ve been done up like a couple of kippers.”’ – Del Boy, Only Fools and Horses
For most shows, it’s the script that is forever by my side in rehearsals. But Monster Raving Loony is, of course, not like most shows, so there is instead another document that I’m almost constantly referring to. It’s a quite intimidating-looking spreadsheet which details all the play’s scenes and characters, pairs cast members to their characters, and shows what music and video is played between scenes. Looking at it now, I can see that the show’s company (Sam, Jack, Joe, Jojo, Camilla and Tom) play around 90 characters between them – and that’s under-estimating if anything!
The challenge the cast have been tackling throughout rehearsals hasn’t just been the number of different characters they play, but the fact that all but a couple are classic comedy figures: familiar stand-ups, famous double-acts and well-known TV faces. Their impressions have developed in different ways, depending on both the character and the actor – sometimes, it starts with something physical (the hunched posture and clasped hands of Lynn from Alan Partridge the wide-eyed and open-mouthed smile of Frank Spencer) and others, it begins with the voice (Kenneth William’s nasality Brian Blessed’s trademark boom, below).
From that initial starting point, the impressions have steadily developed over the past few weeks. Something I’ve realised during rehearsals is that it’s not just vocals and physicality that are essential parts of an impression, but also how the character you’re impersonating relates to other people. Doing a good impression of Peter Cooke means nailing his way of interacting with Dudley Moore, and capturing Eric Morecambe means knowing exactly how to grab someone else by their lapels.
It sometimes feels wrong to call them ‘impressions’, since impressions so often take a recognisable part of someone and emphasise it to the point of caricature, but the cast have been focused on faithfulness to the original characters (sometimes driving themselves Loony over a specific pronunciation or emphasis or movement!). Their job isn’t made any easier by the breakneck speed that some parts of the play run at, shifting between scenes and characters in a flash, or the fact that – unlike a lot of plays – the cast don’t have full costume changes between characters, instead typically only having a hat, pair of glasses or small prop to accompany their impressions.
This week has been the first time we’ve run the entire play in rehearsals (which, with so many ‘episodes’, can feel like a bit of a TV marathon!), which has really shown how much the cast have to do throughout the whole show. But all the things that are challenges for the cast – the number of characters, the speed of the changes, the simplicity of moving from one character to the next – are precisely what makes it so much fun to watch. It’s a good thing too – after a long day surrounded by spreadsheets, lists and notes, watching the show is exactly what’s needed!