Tag Archives: Oddsocks Productions

A Funny State of A Fez

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Derby Theatre, Monday 22nd July, 2013

 For their summer tour, Oddsocks Productions have applied their distinctive style to one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, a play that is already very funny before you Oddsocks it up.  Director/adaptor Andy Barrow leads a team of five new faces and it soon becomes apparent that he picks his cast members well.  This crazy, talented bunch are more than up to the challenges presented in an Oddsocks performance – not least of which is playing musical instruments.

With only six actors (an increase on the usual five) certain things have to be excised from the script.  Old Egeon is nowhere to be seen – he is the father of one set of twins and his arrest and threatened execution adds tension to the play.  But this is Oddsocks.  They even did Hamlet as a comedy.  With the jeopardy removed, this production keeps things light, focussing on the farcical elements of the plot and emphasising the slapstick and physical comedy.  You don’t miss Egeon at all.

Also omitted is Adriana’s sister Luciana, a rival for the affections of the twin of Adriana’s husband (it’s complicated).  Instead of missing her out completely, a woman on the front row is addressed and questioned – for an Oddsocks production, the show is comparatively light on audience participation.

But never mind what we don’t get.  What we do get is an evening of superlative comedy.  The setting is vaguely Turkish; the cart and costumes are looking good, giving the production a unified feel.  There are enough fezzes knocking around for a Sons of the Desert convention. Andy Barrow plays both Dromios, differentiating them by accent, displaying a physical agility that belies his middle-age; as Dromios’ masters Antipholus, Gavin Harrison is a real find; a splendid character actor in the Oddsocks tradition – reactions and expressions are heightened but thought processes are written all over his face.  Anna Westlake’s Adriana is commanding and shrewish but spirited and likeable all the same.  Dominic Gee-Burch and Marlon Soloman add to the cavalcade of silly characterisations, clearly enjoying themselves and proving themselves as versatile comic players.  Also impressive, in this impressive group, Miranda Heath is superb as the Abbess, a Courtesan and an Officer of the law.  Some of the changes are very quick.  At other times, the cast vamp on their instruments through a selection of familiar numbers: Ghost Town by the Specials and Madness’s House of Fun are particular favourites.

The show gives us a chorus of nuns who re-enact the shipwreck that split the two sets of twins when they were infants, before bursting into a surprise Diana Ross number.  Sister Act was never this silly.  But as well as these flashes of madness (and Madness) Shakespeare’s play is still very much in evidence.  The dialogue about Nell, a spherical kitchen maid, is delivered intact and remains one of the funniest bits of patter – Shakespeare invents Abbott and Costello’s entire act.

All the way through, with two actors playing both pairs of twins, I was thinking, how will they do the final reunion?  Brilliantly, is how they do it.  I did not see it coming, even though there are hints throughout the performance.  It all comes together for an hilarious denouement, proving my assertion that Andy Barrow is an unalloyed genius.  His approach to Shakespeare is both irreverent and respectful.  He understands the theatrical engine of the play and the theatrical traditions that underpin it, and yet somehow manages to give us a production that is distinctively his own.

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Cheek to cheek: Dromio (Andy Barrow) and the Courtesan (Miranda Heath)

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R.O.G.E.R. More

R.O.G.E.R. RADIO

Derby Theatre, Friday 8th March, 2013

 

Oddsocks Productions, renowned for their adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works, have other strings to their bow.  One of those strings is the R.O.G.E.R. Radio format.  This is the second of their shows in this format.  The premise is simple but rich.  The plots are framed as live recordings of radio drama at which we are privileged to attend and in which we are invited to participate.  The cast of three, in evening wear, create all the characters through vocal work, and provide sound effects in the time-honoured way (shoes on a tray of gravel) and also in some inventive ways, often exaggerated to cartoonish extent.

But there is more to it, another level.  There is a tension between the performers outside the story they are performing.  We are constantly pulled out of the fictional world they create and into another one.  Added to that are the visual gags, unsuitable for a radio play, that give us the theatre audience plenty to look at.  Perhaps I’m making it sound more complicated than it is.  Perhaps it’s like trying to explain a joke; a joke dismantled is robbed of what makes it funny.

And this show is relentlessly funny.

We are treated to a double bill of classic stories.  First up is Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre of the Earth – a Boy’s Own adventure of exploration and discovery.  Played straight, the radio drama would paint pictures in our minds.  We would imagine all the special effects better than any Hollywood adaptation.  Here, there is an element of that but we are constantly drawn back to the radio studio and the creation of the piece before our very eyes.  The story falls secondary to this organised chaos.  The story is a coat-stand on which to hang all the silliness of the format.

Being an Oddsocks show, there are wild wigs and silly voices and even puppets.  The script by director Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie is riddled with double entendres, double talk, word play and silliness.  There is a running gag with an echo in a bucket that, just as you think it’s wearing thin, reaches its hilarious pay-off.  Barrow knows what he’s doing – the pacing is spot on.  There is, inevitably, audience participation; my contribution to a flock of doves sounded more like a Trimphone but there is something marvellous watching hundreds of people shouting lines from cue cards in funny accents.  We are a nation brought up on pantomime after all.

The second story The Lair of the White Worm is the more coherent narrative of the two.  It’s as though the first one is the set up for the second, familiarising us with the conventions of the piece.   Bram Stoker’s gothic melodrama has a range of weird characters that lend themselves more readily to an Oddsocks parody. It is also rich with Freudian symbolism which means, in this case, an unending supply of knob and hole jokes.  It’s cheeky schoolboy stuff but never grubby or puerile.  There are mongooses (Mongeese? Mengeese?) who meet sticky ends; animal cruelty has never been this funny.

Andy Barrow himself leads his company of three.  As resident genius of the company, he is a theatrical force to be reckoned with.  Joseph Maudsley has a suave, self-satisfied air as he pulls off some of the trickier sound effects, in role as a smug actor playing these characters.  And it’s a pleasure to see Susie Riddell back with the company.  All three are vocally versatile, energetic and disciplined.  That said, there is room for manoeuvre and improvisation when things don’t go exactly to plan.  A cleaver fails to hack through a cabbage.  An attack with a water-sprayer becomes too enthusiastic… You have to see these things to appreciate them in context.  The accidents keep the show fresh for the actors.  Clearly they are enjoying themselves immensely.  That enjoyment transmits to the audience.

It’s a winning formula and I look forward to further stories receiving the R.O.G.E.R. Radio treatment.  This production deserves to be seen by a wider audience in a range of venues across the country.  It’s Round the Horne on Red Bull, The Goon Show on a sugar overdose.  You’d be hard pressed to find a funnier and more gloriously silly night out.

ROGER RADIO

 

 


Back in the Hood

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 21st November, 2012

Oddsocks Productions’ winter show this year is a new version of the outlaw legend, a story familiar from countless retellings, both played straight and in spoofs. All the familiar elements are here: the evil Sheriff, the Merry Men, Maid Marian, the archery contest… but given the Oddsocks treatment. The broad humour, wordplay, innuendo are all here with a lavish coating of slapstick and physical comedy. There is music of a folk nature (composed by Lucy Ward) and of course, a couple of puppets put in an appearance.

This was the first ever performance and at times this was more obvious than others. The set is ingenious, intricate and versatile but brings with it certain drawbacks, making some of the transitions less than slick. In time, these will speed up and, when the script is embedded and the quick changes better organised, the show will run like clockwork – although, to be perfectly honest, the delays, the missed cues and the wobbly walls add to the fun. Oddsocks can get away with it; their enthusiastic brand of knockabout silliness allows for the wheels to come off from time to time.

The cast of five play multiple roles, forming a likeable ensemble working their (odd) socks off to keep the balloon aloft. Kevin Kemp is the titular hero. This Robin is not an aristocrat gone wild but a man of the people. His nobility is of the down-to-earth, working man variety. Kemp is also hilarious as long-serving dungeon occupant Obadiah, complete with stretched limbs and silly beard. Maid Marian is played by Oddsocks newcomer, Louisa Farrant, a classy beauty not shy of plain-speaking and who plays a mean flute. Joseph Maudsley stalks around on stilts as a not-so Little John, and also has a bash at a Bishop. Andrew McGillan is Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet, throwing himself around. They are all very, very funny so I won’t pick a favourite.

This hard-working, energetic and merry band is led by writer/director Andy Barrow as the evil Sheriff and Much the Miller’s Son in a ratty mullet. Barrow hams it up with relish and the script shows his mastery of humour in all its forms. This is good old British comedy, stemming from the likes of The Goons and Round the Horne but there are also hints of the Three Stooges in the slapstick and Abbot & Costello in the double talk. The man knows how to make you laugh.

This is Oddsocks’s most physical show to date. There is plenty of sword play and stage combat (choreographed by Amed Hashimi) that doesn’t repeat a gag, and there is a lot of coming and going to serve the contrivances of the story. I was struck by how political the show is. Robin Hood is a political figure, always has been, but here, with bang up-to-date topical jokes and obvious parallels to the rich who are getting rich off the backs of the poor, the play calls us to action. We all have to be Robin Hood if we are to overcome the exploitation we face. There is a lot about public officials serving the law rather than being above it. This colourful production (wonderful costumes by Mike Lees) shows us the issue can be as simple as black and white, right and wrong.

I am certain as the tour carries on, the organisation will improve and the performances will be slicker, and I really liked the darker moments when it all goes dramatic. Apart from one: the Sheriff’s first scene. He goes straight into his dramatic exposition and we sit there waiting for the chance to boo him as we have been warmed up to do in the prologue. An insult or even just a sneer to the audience as he walks on would allow us the opportunity. As it was, our boos were a long time coming, because we were focussed on the storytelling.

The moments of audience participation are good fun, and the volunteers rose to their scenes with aplomb. On the whole, I believe everyone had a good time. Even the briefly shambolic moments were enjoyable!

Would I like to revisit this production a few weeks down the line?

I Sherwood.


Hilarious Maximus

JULIUS CAESAR
Derby Theatre, Derby, Monday 11th June 2012

The inimitable Oddsocks Productions turn their attention to Shakespeare’s political thriller for this year’s summer tour. I was fortunate enough to see it in a rare indoors appearance – although getting wet through and a soggy picnic at an Oddsocks show is how I know which season it is.

The staples of every Oddsocks performance are all there, so audience expectations (they have built up a loyal band of fans) are met and exceeded. The silly wigs, props and puppets are out in force – two of the conspirators turn in rather wooden performances! The audience is cast in the role of revolting Plebs – hardly a stretch, in my case.

Director Andy Barrow leads his energetic cast, as Brutus, a bit like a lost Mitchell brother in a dress. The Roman tunics make the cartwheels and capers all the more risky. As usual, the five-strong company double and treble up on characters. Lawrence Kemp’s Cassius is earnest and serious, despite the wrangles with his breastplate and toga. James Percy’s Caesar is a radical interpretation – the bathroom scene is a highlight of this very funny production. Joseph Maudsley’s Mark Antony conveys the power of Shakespeare’s rhetoric in his famous eulogy, (All together now: Friends, Romans, Countrymen…) and still makes it funny – but this is what Oddsocks does. Much fun is had with Shakespeare but it is never at the Bard’s expense. Plot and text are the springboard for a particular brand of hilarity and this one is up there with their best.

The only female member of the troupe, Kathryn Levell is put to work as Calpurnia, Casca, 2nd Citizen, and the mispronounced Clitus (her other role is a Portia) so she gets the bulk of the dressing-up fun. As ever, the ensemble outweighs the efforts of any single actor and you get a strong sense that this is a group of people enjoying what they do.

Their trademark pageant wagon has never looked better with its backdrop of classical columns and Roman statuary, and is as versatile as ever. There is a massage scene that will make your eyes water and a ‘tortoise’ of Roman legionaries that will make you gasp. The whole thing is infused with fun and a theatrical savvy that hints at a sophistication underlying the groan-inducing jokes and knockabout comedy. I will certainly be meeting up with the tour again later in the run and risk hypothermia in some sodden corner of England and I urge you to do the same.

It’s what the summer is for.


Big Laughs

THE MIGHTY BEAST
Civic Hall, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 25th April, 2012

This latest show from Oddsocks Productions is a departure from their customary Shakespeare and the Classics-based hilarity but not a departure from hilarity, I am tickled to report.

We are witness to a “live broadcast” of a radio drama from a studio in the 1930s, and so the set is simply a couple of microphones and some tables laden with props. A projection on the back wall reveals the title of the piece and the face of the eponymous gigantic gorilla. The cast of four populate the play with a host of characters, every one with an extremely silly accent, although the overall tone is the clipped teddibly British accents of something like Brief Encounter.

It is all extremely silly indeed. Although this would work as a radio drama, the visual aspects are not overlooked in the slightest. To help distinguish between characters – and to make the thing sillier – the cast don a succession of wigs, hats and beards, a procedure that becomes increasingly frantic as the action progresses. While characters converse at the microphones, other cast members provide sound effects to build the scene. There is of course the obligatory boots on gravel sound – you can’t do a radio play without it – but there are also some inventive ways of portraying swinging through the jungle on vines and walking through bison-infested terrain. Whistles are blown, teacups are stirred and cabbages are slapped. The audience is enlisted to play a tribe of Cockneys, prompted by cue cards to chant, “Who’s that geezer?” and utter aggressive “Ribbits” to suggest a horde of angry frogs.

This is, in case you haven’t guessed, a spin on the story of King Kong: a film-maker and his crew travel to a mysterious island, encounter the mighty beast of the title, and bring it back to London to exploit for the purposes of show business. And it works on more than one level. We get the radio play itself which, like any good piece of narrative theatre, paints pictures in the ear of the beholder. We also get the slapstick of the cast actually trying to act the piece, and it’s all very funny but there is also something more…

This comes out in the second act. Not only does the play give us a laugh-out-loud evening out but it uses the familiar film to make a satirical point about the state of entertainment today. “Krong” (sic) is exploited in a talent show called The Beast Factor. Contestants must sing to appease the gorilla who is barely contained by chains and the fumes of bootleg vodka (provided by the wonderfully named Russian character, Krakwonov). If the savage beast is not soothed, the contestant is horribly killed and the next is brought in. It’s all a fix so that the producer’s favourite will win in the end.

An effective and satirical metaphor for the woeful state of televised music today where hopefuls are eaten up and spat out in monstrous fashion. At one point, a character opines “Why can’t we enjoy music for its own sake? Why does it always have to be a competition?” It is a serious comment and a stand against the prevailing tide.

The format reminded me of Round the Horne re-enactments that did the rounds a while ago. The content also reminded me of the golden age of British radio comedy: the silly voices, the wordplay, the speaking at crossed purposes… The splendid cast (Mark Peachey, Rebecca Jenkins, Kevin Kemp and Andy Barrow) perform with gusto, versatility, quick-wittedness and a sense of enjoyment of what they’re doing that is infectious.

Oddsocks have created a piece that showcases the talents of the performers and the wit and cleverness of director and writer Andy Barrow. That the beast can be suggested by heavy drumbeats, a furry balaclava, furry armbands and growling into a bucket says a great deal about the triumph of invention over expenditure. This piece is rich in ideas, jokes and fun. You don’t need to have two ape knees to rub together.