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Review: The Mona Lisa Five at Pop Upstairs Theatre

By Laura Heuston

When approaching The Mona Lisa Five, it’s important to know that this is a mostly improvised show. While based on the dialogue from the 2018 film of the same name, by the same people, it does not strictly have a script, but rather set beats that the characters need to hit. This is something that I would have recommended they make clearer in the advertising, as initially I assumed that the script was poorly written rather than non-existent (the second of which is much preferable, in my opinion). 

Once you know that this is a mostly improvised production, you can forgive the sharp left turns that the dialogue sometimes takes. Introducing the crucial plot point of having stolen the Mona Lisa was done suddenly and rather jarringly - one minute everyone was sitting around being indulgent and drunk, the next minute we’re being informed that the entire group is actually a band of world class criminals who has stolen and then immediately lost the Mona Lisa. The secondary thief could only be someone in the room, which makes sense, however due to the improvisational nature of the piece we are left with questions that you would expect a script to cover (hence the need to make it clear it is not a scripted work). For instance, what roles did each of the five play in robbing one of the most secure buildings in the world, of its most valuable artifact? We were given two roles, of the replicant painter and the black market connection, but how the caper itself was engineered remained a mystery. Personally, having looked only into the basic premise of the story, I was rather excited to hear about a hilarious robbery of the Louvre, as the main aspect of the heist story is, naturally, the heist. And yes, I do acknowledge that this is a murder/mystery show, not a heist show, however to leave us with virtually no information about the robbery which is central to the current plot seemed a bit ingenuous. 

This lack of information was made excessively clear by the repetitiveness of what was said. Characters would double back on occasion, and have to re-establish their idea or joke. This is of course important for the sake of clarity, but can become tiresome when it happens multiple times. It left one feeling like there should be something else for them to discuss, so they didn’t have to keep coming back to the poison, or the motive for the secondary theft. I imagine this could happen with relative frequency in long form improvisation, however for a professional show it does need to be avoided, lest the audience become bored with the core concept (which would really be a shame, as the central ideas are fantastic).

That being said, there is no doubt that five incredibly talented performers occupied the stage that night. Lord (Cam Ralph) was without doubt the standout, with a booming presence that clearly established his leadership of the criminals, without him even having to say a word. He successfully embodies the unlikable, ultra-wealthy drunkard with little regard for human life. He has no regard for those of “lesser” status than him, despite not having earned a single dollar of his massive fortune - unless you count theft as earning a living, which I would be inclined to do if he wasn’t already rolling in cash. Ralph encapsulates all these ridiculous flaws while lending them the most endearing quality of them all - hilarity. We forgive Lord all his debauchery because he’s just so funny about it.

Debbie Neilson also captures the audience with her utter cruelty and proclivity for incest. While attempting to figure out who re-stole the painting, she toys with the idea of marrying her first cousin rather than her second, who just so happens to be one of the thieves as well. Thankfully for her, Bertie (played by Brenton Aimes) seems to be just a little bit of a masochist, and her barbs only serve to encourage his affections. Bertie seems to have a lot of issues to tackle throughout the show, with unrequited love acting as one of the relatively minor ones. At one point we're faced with a war flashback, and he seems to be the only character with any concept of his own mortality. Naturally, this makes him “hysterical” as any displays of emotion are “making a scene” according to the aristocracy.

What this show consistently does well is make fun of the rich, and their utter disregard for anything going beyond the material. Poison the wine, they still get drunk. One is a traitor, they play a guessing game. Death is imminent, they leave their kids with… someone? The funniest parts of The Mona Lisa Five are the naturally arising jokes that come from the sheer absurdity of the situation, and the skill of the actors. All the characters are the worst, but as Lord demonstrates so well, they get away with it because they’re funny enough.

Image: Supplied


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