Of Baboons and Light Opera
The first knock at the door is my five-minute warning. Enough time to get into costume, skull a bottle of water and complete my breathing exercises. The mask chafes a little – I’m not used to rubber against my skin - although I don’t mind it. It’s the tights that really hurt. But the baboons are traditional like that.
I am the very model of a Modern Major-General…
Nobody knows where the baboons came from. Neither do we know what they want – ultimately – but it seems the key to staying alive is to keep them entertained. That’s almost certainly the reason the Biddlecombe Musical Players were spared in the initial massacre. While our friends, family, neighbours and workmates were being devoured, we were beginning Act 2 of Oklahoma! One verse into The Farmer and the Cowman, the monkeys careered into the village hall and ripped the audience to pieces. We stopped, aghast, unable to believe what we were seeing. Then a voice sounded behind me.
‘The show must go on.’
And so it did.
Not being the strongest singer, I was playing the part of a fresh-faced farmhand. I always was a connoisseur of the lower end of the bill, having played a Hussar in The Merry Widow, a Yeoman Warder in The Yeomen of the Guard and one of the First Lord’s non-speaking cousins in HMS Pinafore. This usually meant a lot of hanging around in the wings while more talented singers and actors enjoyed the limelight but, because anyone who tried to leave was jumped upon, killed and eaten, our performances ran with the full cast on stage throughout. What we lost in dramatic irony we gained in spades in volume.
The baboons do not sleep well, which is a pity. Had we been taken over by lions, tigers or even alley cats, we could at least be assured that they would doze contentedly for the majority of the day. But the baboons sleep in short bursts, usually during the allotted intervals between acts and mercifully all at the same time, save for two sentries. We use this time to eat and drink and catch as much sleep as possible before being summoned back on stage by their high-pitched jeering.
We must also use this time to plan what we will perform next and learn the songs and key dialogue. After all, the baboons do not care to see the same show more than once. They are also highly particular, lest we forget our original director Frank Pimm. He came up with what he described as a fool-proof plan to perform Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle in its entirety, thus keeping the baboons at bay for some four days. However, fourteen minutes into the Vorabend, they grew restless and began an impromptu game of rugby with our now erstwhile director’s head. Baboons don’t want epics, they want light whimsy: easy to understand and sung in English, their adopted native tongue. So we stuck to light opera, praising Gilbert and Sullivan especially for their considerable body of work.
The other benefit of being a bit part player was the baboons’ propensity for senseless violence during the curtain call. The more they clapped, the more they worked themselves up into frenzy. It wasn’t unusual for a principal to strut to the front of the stage, take a bow and never straighten up again. As a chorus member I usually escaped with light bruising.
Sadly, I found myself higher and higher on the bill as time and performances moved on. Eventually I scored the lead part of Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance. This posed several problems: first of all, the vocal dexterity required to sing his famous patter song – never mind remembering all the words - and, more pressing, the fact I would be last to take a bow and almost certainly lose my head.
The premiere was that night and the theatre was full. The self-appointed leader of the baboons sat upright and proud in the box, two females by his side grooming him and feeding him any choice ticks they managed to pick off. Soldier baboons filled the aisle seats, thrashing their limbs against the felt armrests, demanding the show to start. One burly fellow in the front row seemed to be eyeing me up, perhaps getting a feel for the size and weight of my bonce.
My first line of dialogue would not come until close to the end of Act One, so I stood by the side of the stage running over and over my lyrics. I wasn’t used to this. Choruses proved no trouble to me and the odd line here and there was welcome, but there were pages and pages to remember here. Most worryingly of all, I had forgotten practically all of my set-piece solo.
Twenty minutes in, we suffered a major setback when a coconut shell thrown from somewhere in row J knocked out the Pirate King and I was thrust to the front of the stage early. I opened my mouth and sang for all I was worth.
…to my great ape overlords, I’ve greetings more than several.
You may be pretty hairy but I know you’re anatomical-
ly well-proportioned even with a body somewhat comical…
The baboons looked confused. They’d never heard this song before, but still they could sense something was wrong with it. The question was: would they go with it? The sweat was dripping off my forehead as I continued singing, unsure where these words were coming from.
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical
there are so very many of you, it’s time for a sabbatical.
Other forms of entertainment are as worthy as the theatre
So why not try the pictures with their popcorn…salt and sweet…ener?
I knew then that it wasn’t going well. The burly baboon had the libretto open on his lap. The more I sang, the more I could see him fume. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and carried on.
I’m very good at integral and differential Calculus…
I hope that somewhere nearby there’s a driver of an ambulance
because the look this monkey’s giving…
That had torn it. Burly threw down the libretto; scattering pages everywhere and launched himself on to the stage. He clamped on to me, hairy arms linked around my neck, his sharp teeth gnawing at my epaulettes. The other baboons fell temporarily silent, then exploded with raucous applause. This was audience participation at its most visceral and, as I saw a small clump of my own flesh fall before me, I began to scream and flail my arms. It seemed Burly had cut through the epaulettes and was now working his razor-like incisors on my shoulder. I began to spin around, looking for some way to detach him. By keeping my eyes closed, and a tight turning circle, the tide moved in my favour. As I span faster, Burly’s vision became blurred and he loosened his grip on my shoulder. Now I was in control. The only problem was that the spinning had also made me dizzy. When I opened my eyes, I found myself staggering wildly stage left where I eventually lost my balance and collapsed on my back. Burly cushioned my fall. There was silence. Some nine seconds passed and I rose to my feet leaving the unconscious baboon flat out on the stage.
The leader had also risen. He was staring straight at me with his piercing yellow eyes. Then he began to applaud. He clapped louder and louder, bellowing, screaming, willing the other baboons to stand and show their appreciation. Two baboons scampered on to the stage and raised my hand briefly in victory before carrying me aloft to the backstage area.
The mask chafes a little. And there’s no secret really that it’s me underneath, except perhaps to the very young who believe this kind of entertainment is real. Every night I enter the ring as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. Every night I crawl dejectedly back through the ropes as the loser. The bad guy never wins, that’s the rule. I have to wait, trading theatrical punches and slaps with my opponent, until the allotted moment when I allow a bronzed, blonde baboon to fall on me from a great height. Then I remain on the mat for a count of ten. Every night. But it keeps a roof over my head and food in my belly. Also, my celebrity keeps me out of the slave mines and off the dinner plate.
Sometimes, as I step out from behind the curtain and hear a mixture of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and a deafening chorus of boos, jeers and chatters, somewhere I can still hear the plink-plonk of an old piano and the uncultured jigsaw of an unrehearsed ensemble.