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Review: Cooped at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Time flies when you’re having fun, and when it comes to Spymonkey, the clock has evidently gone supersonic.

Somehow the company has turned 20, and to celebrate this landmark the prankster purveyors of theatrical anarchy have revived one of their earliest hits, Cooped, for a short UK season ahead of a US tour which will see the show renamed Hysteria.

And there are certainly moments of uncontrollable laughter, not least towards the end of the first half when what starts as a technically tasteful ‘au naturel’ tableau – complete with pastoral cavorting and 17th century warbling from Toby Park – descends in to a full frontal nudity free-for-all.

Introduced as inspired by the Gothic romance novella, Cooped sees our intrepid company taking on pseudo acting identities (Stephan Kreiss as a wild-eyed German expressionist, Aitor Basauri as a Spanish soap heartthrob, and Petra Massey’s 60s hip chick ingenue Mandy Bandy among them) to perform the piece.

Toby Park as Forbes. Top: Aitor Basauri and Petra Massey.

Troubled orphan Laura du Lay (Massey) arrives in remotest Northumberlandshirehampton to take up her post as secretary to the mysterious and devilishly debonair Forbes Murdston (Toby Park essaying his trademark straight man role) who inhabits the gloomy Featherstone Hall with his lunatic butler Klaus (Kreiss).

But strange things keep happening, and the earnest Laura doesn’t know which way to turn or who to trust.

The action - part-Python, part-Pink Panther, part-Psycho - doesn’t so much unfold as wantonly helter skelter around and across designer Lucy Bradridge’s mock-Tudor timbered hall set complete with imposing escutcheon, pair of royal George portraits, one-man lift, and shortest staircase in the world.

Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss. Photos by Jane Hodgson

With long-time collaborator (and comedy genius) Cal McCrystal in the director’s chair, the close-knit quartet are in expert hands, and it’s evident that after two decades they are still having lots of fun testing each other’s limits on stage. The second half in particular has a number of off-piste moments.

So while it’s not always rolling-in-the-aisles funny, you’re certainly never less than amused (and perhaps occasionally bemused) by the inventive and outlandish antics and visuals.

These include roaming pheasants, a horse with attitude, a Seekers-style singing combo, Mother Theresa and the Good Samaritan fighting over a beggar, a random Kaiser miming act, magic tricks, and rather a lot of ping pong balls.

Smart and supremely silly stuff.

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