Tag Archives: Ian Stapleton

Wordplay and Swordplay

ROBIN HOOD AND THE REVOLTING PEASANTS

Artrix, Bromsgrove, Sunday 13th January, 2019

 

For their winter tour this year, the inestimable Oddsocks bring this new take on the legendary figure who has for centuries stood for the downtrodden and against the abuses of power.  As ever with this funniest of theatre companies, you can expect a lot of laughs, but there is something different about this offering.  In terms of form, there is a departure from the familiar style right from the off.  The introductions (a staple of Oddsocks’s shows, in which the actors adopt silly pseudonyms) is shared by all five, making for a more democratic presentation – there’s a clue there to how the content is going to play out.  Also, the cast members share narrating duties; the shows are always team efforts but there is an emphasis this time around…

Writer-director Andy Barrow appears as the villainous, sneering Sheriff, bleeding the peasantry dry so he can build his castles and mansions and duck houses.  Barrow is an old hand when it comes to dealing with the audience, doling out insults and putting down hecklers with good-natured wit.  He also gets to indulge his rock-star aspirations with his solo.  Not only can he somersault he can also belt out a good tune.

The satire is laid on with an industrial trowel as Barrow tackles issues and concerns that bedevil the country to this day.  One of the Sheriff’s nefarious plans involves a rudimentary form of fracking beneath Sherwood Forest, with the outlaws doing their utmost to stop it – through asking politely and singing protest songs.  Meanwhile, the peasants are being cleared out of town, their hovels levelled to make way for the gentrification of the area rather than building affordable housing for all…

It takes plucky Marion (a delightful Joanna Brown, new to the team) a crusader (not that sort) and pro-active member of the community to enlist the famous Robin to the cause.  Robin and the outlaws have been victim of fake news reports and are vilified by the peasantry they are seeking to assist.  Robin is played by Oddsocks veteran Dominic Gee-Burch as a funny, down-to-earth sort, most definitely not aristocratic.  Gee-Burch is immediately likeable, and impresses with his vocal skills in a rousing rendition of You’re The Voice.

The talented Ben Locke makes a welcome return to the troupe appearing (among other roles) as Little John, who is something of an eco-warrior.  Ellen Chivers, in her Oddsocks debut, brings a lot of humour to her characterisations, Patricia the peasant, Robin’s sister Scarlet, and a hapless Norman soldier.  As ever, Andy Barrow has gathered an excellent ensemble, and he works them hard, but the show is almost stolen out from under them by the antics of Twitchy the squirrel.

Fight direction by Ian Stapleton adds slapstick violence to the fun.  There is fisticuffs and swordplay with the women giving as good as the men.  Costumes by Sigrid Mularczyk and Vanessa Anderson are marvellously medieval, while being functional to allow for quick changes and action sequences.  As ever, the set is an intricate thing of flaps and moving parts, reminiscent of the company’s early years on a pageant wagon.

It’s enormous fun while being their most overtly political show to date.  It’s great to see an original story incorporating what works best about the Oddsocks approach: silliness, physical comedy, puppetry, modern musical numbers, and audience participation.  The action might be a little muddied at times but the message is perfectly clear.  If there is one thing this country needs, it’s a prick to the social conscience.  This show is a salutary (and hilarious) reminder of things that ought to be important to us all.

the-sherrif

Sheriff Andy Barrow having a night on the boos

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Mods and Mockers

ROMEO AND JULIET

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 20th June, 2017

 

The consistently excellent Oddsocks Productions revisits Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-cross’d lovers, this time giving it a mods and rockers setting.  There is more of Brighton than Verona and, in keeping with the company’s fun-loving style, it works extremely well.  The two households are divided by musical differences; the Montagues are the mods, the Capulets the rockers, and the audience is also divided along these lines for a running joke of participation that, instead of becoming more tired as the play goes on, becomes more hilarious.

Director and resident genius Andy Barrow appears as both Capulet, a pot-bellied Black Country rocker, and a bandana-sporting, sneering Tybalt.  At one point he is called upon to argue with himself behind the bar of the Capulets’ Cavern of Rock – just one of the many highlights that exhibit the man’s comic superpowers.  This is also the first time I’ve heard a rendition of ‘Black Betty’ in a Shakespeare production.  Barrow is generous is sharing the laughs out among the rest of his cast of six, a group that comprises familiar faces and new recruits.

Returning favourites include Rebecca Little as the Nurse – another of her remarkable characterisations, distilling the essence of the Shakespearean model and blending it with Oddsocks energy.  It is remarkable how the moment can turn, and knockabout antics suddenly become heartfelt.  I’ve said it before, many times, this is what Oddsocks does so brilliantly: giving us a lot of fun but remaining true to the spirit of the play.  Every now and then Shakespeare asserts himself and the drama comes to the fore.  One such moment tonight is the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Alexander Bean).  It’s all fun and games until someone loses a kinsman.  Cartoon, slapstick violence is suddenly deadly serious.  Kudos to fight director Ian Stapleton!

Also back for more is the marvellous Gavin Harrison as Benvolio, in parka and pork pie hat, and ‘Jimmy Paris’ a Rockstar guitarist.  Harrison is fast becoming a fixture in this company – they’d be hard pressed to find anyone to better him.

Newcomer Alexander Bean’s Mercutio surprises us with the sudden beauty of the Queen Mab speech, and his West Indian Friar Laurence is a deadpan delight.  The rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse fits many accents – Oddsocks certainly puts that to the test!

Also new are the eponymous lovers.  Pippa Lewis’s rock chick Juliet is wonderfully immature and, unbelievably, credible!  She also plays a mean saxophone.  Good-looking Matthew Burns is a great find as Romeo, moody, volatile and very funny.

This tight ensemble all play instruments and sing.  Oddsocks productions of late have become musicals, interpolating hits of yesteryear (and sometimes of the present day!) into the action.  The choices are always spot on.  And never more than at the end, when the stage is littered with bodies and Benvolio leads a rendition of ‘Enjoy Yourself, it’s later than you think’.

Bloody bonkers and bloody brilliant.

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Called to the bar: Andy Barrow as Tybalt


Homeward Bound

Mike Kenny’s new version of The Odyssey condenses 20 years of travel and adventure into two hours of stage time.  The first act, which deals with Odysseus’s journey, certainly benefits from a fast pace, giving us the key episodes of the epic voyage in brief scenes.  A chorus of gods is our narrators while the man himself lies spark out centre stage.  As the action gets under way, Odysseus becomes his own storyteller, narrating a story within a story – but don’t worry: it’s all very accessible and easy to follow.

It’s action-packed and fast-moving with some stirring acapella  singing from soloists and the entire company.  Composer and sound designer Ivan Stott should be commended for his excellent contributions.  He also appears as a range of characters, including Eumaeus the swineherd.

Director Sarah Brigham hardly lets the cast keep still for a second; the action is fluid and the staging is rich with invention and ideas, making the most of the present-day army aesthetic.  But for me, the tone is slightly off.  Some of the narration and heightened dialogue is a little too earnest and po-faced.  The piece could do with lightening up – that is not to say it is humourless because it has its funny moments; I just think the bias is the wrong way round.  They need to have more fun with it so that moments of anguish and suffering are all the more striking by contrast.

Christopher Price is a darkly funny Cyclops, stalking around on stilts, half-man, half-Dalek.  Wole Sawyerr is a weary Odysseus, conveying most of the hero’s exhaustion through body language, summoning up yet another idea to save their skins and finding the energy to command his crew.  He seems to come alive in the second act when the plot slows down to focus on events upon his much-delayed return to his home on Ithaca.  Here is human drama – as opposed to the derring-do with gods and monsters in the first act – and the cast is able to invest more emotion in the playing of these scenes.

Emma Beattie is a hard-nosed Penelope, standing her ground against an infestation of suitors and guarding her emotions until she is finally sure her long-lost husband has returned.  Similarly effective is Rich Dolphin as Odysseus’s troubled teenage son Telemachus, convincing us with his entire demeanour that he is younger than he really is, without descending into caricature.  Adam Horvath gets the arrogance and cruelty of would-be husband Antinous just right, and I also enjoyed Ella Vale’s haughty Circe as well as Anna Westlake’s loyal servant Eurekleia.

The fights (directed by Ian Stapleton) and other acts of violence are handled extremely well – I just wish the production didn’t take itself quite so seriously in the first half.  There is more than enough energy and creativity at work here to allow for a lighter touch that would sharpen the contrast with the heavier moments.

Technically and theatrically impressive, this Odyssey is enjoyable but doesn’t really hit home until its hero does.

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Promotional image for the production