Review – Oedipussy, Spymonkey, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2012

OedipussyIf you’re going to update a Greek tragedy, you might as well go the whole hog. Spymonkey’s latest production, born in Northampton and on the road until May, takes the mythical king from his youthful days in Corinth (“Corinth, Corinth”) to becoming the ruler of Thebes (“Thebes, Thebes”), making sure to include killing dad Laius at the crossroads, and marrying mum Jocasta, and encounters with Tiresias, the Sphinx, the Oracle, and the shepherds Lucky and Plucky (I think they made those names up.) You have to hand it to them – not only is it an evening of ludicrous comedy, they actually take you through the Oedipus story in quite a structured way. In all honesty you wouldn’t recommend it to the Fifth Form studying for exams, but I think Sophocles and Euripides would approve. No half hog here.

Apparently their inspiration for digging deep into serious legend came as a result of a bad review by Joyce McMillan – the name gets repeated a few times – in the Scotsman, of their show “Moby Dick”. It’s true – she really didn’t enjoy it. So I’d better be careful what I say lest I end up part of the introduction to their next show. It was the “bunch of middle-aged actors” line that really got Petra Massey’s goat – and I agree with her: if they really are the ages they say they are – and you get the feeling this is a company that would tell the truth – then I am older than all of them, and I’m still young, so there. If that review really was the kick up the backside they felt they needed – tongue in cheek no doubt – then jolly good show, because this is a very exuberant and entertaining experience, mixing Greek myth with James Bond and much more besides.

We’d actually seen the opening scene before – they performed it at the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Launch – and it’s a wonderfully subversive and unusual way to open a show. By introducing you to the four actors, it cleverly gives you an initial insight into their characters and their roles within the company; and begins a link that runs throughout the evening of their coming out of character and engaging with the audience, as themselves, on whatever is playing on their mind. It’s quite a fun device for the actors to address the audience anyway – you feel you’re as much part of their evening as they are of yours – but it’s particularly rewarding when they’re talking about their fellow cast-members behind their back.

There’s no doubt at all that these four performers are naturally funny people, and, when you realise they have clown backgrounds, it all makes sense. I bet they could all do solo pieces that would fit perfectly in something like The Burlesque Show. They have a fluidity of movement, very expressive facial and eye movements, and above all, don’t give two hoots about how stupidly they are dressed (or not), which is handy in this production as most of the time they look like adverts for Tena. You get the feeling they are very brave performers who would go to the end of the world (stage-wise) if the art warranted it.

Petra MasseyI guess no one in this cast is braver than Petra Massey, who plays the Sphinx as half woman half cat but with a vital misinterpretation. Her chats with the audience were also amongst the most entertaining. When she suddenly breaks off and shares how the Oedipus story reflects her own life, it was very funny, and very believable, as was the way she went back into character. She also has a wonderful moment of comic business with what she does with a sheep sacrifice. Toby Park I also really liked Toby Park’s rather miserable soliloquy, lamenting his currently woeful job, knowing he’s capable of so much better than this, handing out his graphic and web design consultancy business cards at the end – which appear to be genuine – although he won’t get any work via his website as it requires a password to get in! He was also great as Tiberias, and as the Chorus whose hat looks like the icon for my spam folder.

Stephan KreissStephan Kreiss makes for a delightfully unhinged young Oedipus, let loose into the world and desperately seeking a shag, which you might get if you’re in the front row. As an older Oedipus he cuts a commanding figure – his lovey-dovey scenes with Jocasta are very funny and his tragic hero scenes are brilliantly over-the-top. Aitor BasauriAitor Basauri makes up the foursome, his physical appearance being especially unsuited to nappies. As Laius, his teaching Chrysippus how to wield a discus is scarily sensual. I also loved him alternating as Lucky and Plucky and his devotion to his sheep is inventively done.

Other highlights include his appearance as a singalong leper colony – really funny and so skilfully performed; the Oracle, whose eyes have something of Alice in Wonderland’s Pig Babies about them and the effective representation of blood and death. Jocasta’s was hilarious. I also loved the predictable but hilarious consequences of having headgear too large for the entrance door onto the stage. Simple ideas often work best.

If I have a criticism, it would be that, as a whole, it is so frothy, so cappuccino, so light in its touch, that actually, on the way home, there isn’t a lot to discuss. It’s very funny, end of. It’s also a Marmite production – I would say for every eight people laughing riotously, there were two sitting stony-faced. If you don’t get totally ridiculous comedy, I don’t think you’d like it. Mrs Chrisparkle adored it; I liked it a lot. This was our first Spymonkey experience; we’d definitely see them again and would recommend this show if you’re an aficionado of the ultra-daft.

Royal and Derngate Northampton Subscription Season Launch 2012

Made in NorthamptonLast year Mrs Chrisparkle had a “business thing” to attend, and so missed the launch event, which was a shame as it’s an excellent opportunity to whet your appetite for the season ahead, as well as to hob and to nob with the great and the good. Fortunately this year she was able to come too, so we both headed off to the Royal eager with anticipation.

Our host for the evening again was Laurie Sansom, not only Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, but also director of, inter alia, such treats as the recent Eden End, Duchess of Malfi and Spring Storm. Thank heavens he shows no sign of wanting to move from Northampton.

The BacchaeStarting at the end of the season, he first took us through the three plays that will make up the Festival of Chaos productions, which will themselves be part of the London 2012 Festival, and part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s great to have Northampton and the R&D recognised at this level. All three are to be directed by Mr Sansom – as they’re his three favourite plays of all time. A new version of Euripides’ Bacchae is the first of the three, and the first surprise of the evening is that it will be presented at the Chronicle and Echo building, in the disused printing area. Dionysus alongside industrial machinery? Sounds atmospherically intriguing, and I’m really excited about this one.

Blood WeddingThe second Chaos show, if I can call it that, which will be played in rotation with The Bacchae, is an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding by Tommy Murphy. I’ve never seen a straightforward production of Blood Wedding and I don’t think this will be one either. Mr Murphy wrote “Holding the Man” which came to London a while ago, which I didn’t see, but I understand was both desperately funny and desperately sad, which sounds like a decent mix for Lorca.

Hedda GablerThe third Chaos production is to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which Laurie Sansom said can be likened to the Female Hamlet. We saw the production at the Oxford Playhouse a couple of years ago which was quite good, with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerney. Ms Pike was a miserable presence from the start, which I’m sure is one way of reading the role but I wonder if a Laurie Sansom version might have more light and shade. It’ll be good to have some meaty drama though. These three plays are nothing if not meaty.

Ladies in LavenderWorking back, Laurie Sansom then introduced us to Shaun McKenna who has adapted the Judi Dench and Maggie Smith film Ladies in Lavender for the stage. It’s all about how two rather stale lives are changed by the sudden appearance of a third person – washed up on the beach. This sounds like it should be an extremely classy production, as the second – and most major – surprise of the night is that the Judi Dench role will be played by none other than Hayley Mills. That is some coup. If that wasn’t enough Ms Mills joined us by Skype from New York for a brief interview. If I have a slight concern, I wonder who will play the Maggie Smith role – will the production manage the right balance between the two characters? Time will tell, but on the face of it this looks amazing.

OedipussyAnd bringing us back to almost the present, Emma Rice came on to tell us about the new Spymonkey production, Oedipussy, which opens in February. I’ve not seen Spymonkey before but I think I am going to like them. It sounds like it’s going to be well wacky, and then some. The four Spymonkey actors later came on stage themselves and introduced their idea of the play in their own way within a superbly funny playlet. The impetus to go Greek was apparently as a result of a damning comment by a critic who basically thought they should grow up and do something adult. Gosh, I do hope I like the show otherwise they might wreak their revenge. According to their website, the show contains incest, violence, mutilation, strobes, nudity and chorus work. I’m not certain their clowning backgrounds will help you with your Classics degree – expect more Greeks Behaving Badly.

In other news, there is to be a new friends’ scheme called The Artistic Director’s Circle which gives you enviable access to the backstage world of the theatre; and an encouraging announcement that 2012’s Christmas play in the Royal will be Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I understand it’s currently pre-embryonic in development but I’m sure it will fit perfectly in the Royal environment.

So there it is, 2012’s Made in Northampton season in a nutshell. We’re very lucky to have such a destination theatre in our midst and I am sure it will be a season to remember. Can’t wait!