When actor Jamie Oxenbould was a kid, he had an unlikely TV hero in Lancelot, the chimpanzee star of spoofy spy comedy Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.
“It was a pretty cheap-looking show but I was obsessed with it back then,” Oxenbould says. “Now I know a little bit about how those shows were made … it was maybe not so cool.
“Back then, they kept chimp actors pretty drunk so that they could control them,” he says. “Or they fed them Xanax to keep them calm.”
As well as revisiting childhood favourites, Oxenbould has also been tuning in to the 2011 documentary Project Nim (the story of a chimp brought up in a human family) and YouTube’s Chimp Channel as background research for his next role – Trevor, the antihero of playwright Nick Jones’ tragicomic story of a 200 pound chimpanzee with Hollywood aspirations.
Jones’ play is based on a true story, one that rocked America back on its collective heels.
In 2009, news broke of a violent assault perpetrated by Travis, a 14-year-old male chimpanzee who was a popular figure in the town of Stamford, Connecticut.
Raised from infancy among people, Travis wore human clothes (he could dress himself) and did chores around the house. He had even been allowed to drive a car on several occasions and had appeared in several TV commercials.
But one afternoon, Travis snapped, attacking a neighbour and leaving her close to death with injuries too terrible to describe. After his owner stabbed him in order to try to save her neighbour, the raging ape was eventually shot dead by police.
“Travis was like the cutest chimp in the world,” says Oxenbould. “But then he grew up. He became unruly and unwieldy. He got fat and quite ugly. His owner fed him junk food and he drank wine and Coca-Cola mixed together.”
But that wasn’t the half of it, adds Di Adams, who plays Sandra, Travis’s human ‘mom’.
“[Sandra] had lost a daughter. She had lost her husband. So Travis was like a child to her. They even slept in the same bed.
“Chimps are super-cute until they reach puberty and then what? You’ve got an out-of-control chimp, basically a wild animal.”
Oxenbould’s Trevor will look entirely human. Jones’ script stipulates no mask, no fake fur. Trevor speaks perfect English when he addresses the audience.
“When I tell friends I’m playing a chimp who wants to make it as an actor, they say, ‘yeah, I can totally see you doing that’,” Oxenbould says. “I don’t know whether I should feel insulted or complimented.”
Trevor’s simian side is only apparent to the human characters on stage, Adams explains.
“It’s up to us to endow Jamie with the qualities of a 200 pound chimpanzee. We’re acting like we’re sharing the stage with a potentially wild animal, not a five-foot-six man. It’s like being in a room with a German Shepherd or a tiger … you don’t just walk up to it.”
And of course, none of the human characters in the play can understand anything Trevor says.
“It’s really weird for an actor,” says Adams. “Normally, your scene partner has input, you focus on what they’re saying because that helps you. You listen and you react.
“This is completely the opposite. Trevor asks a lot of questions but I can’t understand them. Yet I have to respond because my line. It’s really hard.”
This Outhouse Theatre Company production of Trevor – the play’s Sydney premiere – is directed by Shaun Rennie.
It’s not just a story about a chimp going ape, he says.
“It’s an actor’s story in a lot of ways. Trevor has these Hollywood dreams that are very vivid for him. He’s frustrated with that carrot of success that gets dangled in front of us. Trevor is what happens when we realise it’s all bullshit.”
At a deeper level, it’s also a play that ponders the dangers of miscommunication, says Rennie.
“Our inability to listen to and understand each other is a root cause of so many problems. We’re in our silos and we’re screaming, all trying to be heard, but we’re not very good at listening.”
The take home message?
“Don’t keep a chimpanzee as a pet,” Oxenbould smiles. “But really, it’s a play about family, and how hard it can be to keep a family together.”
Trevor plays at Kings Cross Theatre, June 14-July 6