The Lowry, Salford, 17 November 2015
As theatrical events go, this is unusual. I’m wearing a set of goggles, a plastic poncho and a sparkly shower cap. I’m stumbling across a stage while the cast spray me with water pistols and throw ping pong balls at my head and I’m trying to get Odysseus (who is depicted by a wooden spoon with a smily face drawn on it) to the safety of a rubber ring. And I can’t complain, because I volunteered for this.
Welcome to The Odyssey as presented by Splendid Productions. When it comes to making a hoary old legend accessible for a wider audience, this team are hard to beat. The three-strong cast (Kerry Frampton, Genevieve Day and Cordelia Stevenson) depict a multitude of characters between them, switching effortlessly from role to role with aplomb and utilising a selection of simple but ingenious costumes. Watching Kerry Frampton switch from a swaggering warrior to Penelope simply by the application of a white headscarf is an extraordinary thing, so accomplished it elicits gasps of astonishment. Meanwhile members of the predominantly young audience are enlisted to help out – a ‘storm orchestra’ periodically kicks up a rumpus, a young man in a poncho runs up and down telling the audience they’re all going to die and somebody else is called upon to keep a running tally of the carnage. Odysseus’s epic voyage is depicted by a series of titles pegged out on a washing line. And it all works brilliantly.
I’ve rarely seen a better example of how to involve an audience in a production and I generally don’t laugh this loud when called upon to watch a Greek myth. Splendid are an appropriately named company. Catch this show at The Lowry, Salford Quays, before it sets sail for new horizons. It’s legendary.
It’s one of the oldest stories we know: an epic tale of one man’s struggle to return home. But have you ever seen a version of The Odyssey where the hero was played by a wooden spoon?
Yes, that’s right: Splendid Productions gives us a stripped-back, 75-minute, three-woman Odyssey, with Spoon Odysseus moved along a washing-line upstage to represent his progress towards home. It’s touring theatres and schools until March 2016.
The three actors are all multi-talented, multi-voiced, multi-bodied; they go from rôle to rôle seamlessly, sing, dance, and recite in unison. It’s astonishing to watch one turn instantly from a guffawing suitor into a delicate, dignified Penelope. The few props show the same level of versatility, and the show is somewhat stolen by three magnificent woollen beards, used in various inventive ways.
A series of brilliantly imaginative gimmicks is used to involve the audience. At the start, we are all instructed in how to create a storm, and one teenager is asked to keep track of the death toll. Later, a plucky volunteer is dressed up in a poncho and sparkly swimming cap and led through an obstacle course. It’s all uproariously funny, helped by the cast’s needle-sharp ad-libbing at the expense of anybody who is noisy or late. The only hiccup is when one actor dwells on the sexual symbolism in the story. At a show partly aimed at young people, this (although funny) may go a bit too far.
Don’t choose Splendid’s Odyssey if you dislike interactivity or fear being “picked on”, but if you’re willing to surrender yourself to a fast-paced, silly, inventive show, it’s a lot of fun.
When Homer recounted the misadventures of Odysseus in his epic The Odyssey he didn’t include any jokes. Based upon the rousing reception accorded to Splendid Productions’ version of the legend at The Lowry this may have been a mistake.
A cast of three wearing home-knitted beards and employing comedic Yorkshire accents re-tell the legend using very basic props and relying on the magic of Theatre. Sorry: t’Theatre.
Splendid Productions are an educational and theatrical company. Tonight, however, their emphasis is on the latter rather than the former. The highly irreverent outlook of the company is not directed at the source material but rather its component parts: the stupidity of war and male attempts at domination.
The show is intended for schools and manages to communicate the plot of the epic in a clear, concise and, more importantly, engaging manner. There is great success in achieving a high level of audience involvement with one particularly enthusiastic patron running up and down the aisles screaming ‘We’re doomed’ at appropriate moments. As the house lights are left up throughout the audience is visible to the cast as one inattentive and well-scolded patron discovers.
Although Penelope’s suitors are played for laughs, as obnoxious Bullingdon oafs, this well-textured production is not limited to comedy. On the more dramatic side Kerry Frampton (who co-adapted the epic with Ben Hales) interprets Penelope in a haunted, resigned manner and Cordelia Stevenson’s version of Calypso is gently moving.
The adaptation does not rely solely on verbal storytelling. Genevieve Say’s retelling of the Circe legend is as much interpretive dance as it is a monologue.
This sparkling and engaging production demonstrates that educational shows need not be dull but can fulfil an instructive role while being entertaining.