ostritch boys cast

On a journey of discovery: Shea Davis as Ross, Carl Au as Sim, Faaiz Mbelizi as Kenny and Fred Haig as Blake Picture: Robert Day

Ostrich Boys

Coventry Belgrade B2

*****

THIS is a show it’s impossible to rate too highly. How does one start? The text is terrific - and funny, and sometimes touching - from start to finish.

The sheer quality of Carl Miller’s new adaptation of Keith Gray’s scintillating story, geared to all parts being taken by just four actors, takes one’s breath away.

Endlessly entertaining, it’s punchy and vital and gloriously witty; and the youthfulness of the performers calls to mind that it was first seen, in an earlier (very different) adaptation, staged by performers - lots of them - of school age.

So who are our likely lads, whose quick-fire conversation in a host of shifting accents makes this whole evening so electrifying?

One of the four, Ross (a wonderfully created role by an ever versatile Shea Davis) is dead, from a recent road accident. But he presides over the whole evening like the Ghost from Hamlet, manipulating events with striking subtlety. The other three, Blake, Sim and Kenny, are his friends, who are conveying Ross’s ashes up to north Scotland - to Ross, in fact. There is a hint later on that each feels he has sealed, or hastened, Ross’s fate in some way - but avoided the truth, like (as they put it at the end) ostriches with their heads in the sand - and the awkward possibility that he in fact committed suicide.

What we see - after some entertaining altercations with parents or schoolmasters - is a journey - in a sense, one of growing up. The dialogue is blissfully amusing and brilliantly quick-fire - except for some magical touches when the troupe drop their voices and some 

riveting moments when the hush drops into total silence.

This is a production that is stupendously well-moved: both the sizzling stage cavortings and interactions, every one perfectly crafted with his foursome team by director Tonostrich postery Graham - and much abetted by a cleverly mobile stage from designer Jason Southgate (there’s a lot of fun when the gang divert to Blackpool, and one brilliantly effective, cleverly lit trompe-d’oeuil (Arnim Freiss, whose pinpoint spot-fixing of key moments and appealingly shifting cyclorama made every scene an ever-varying event.). But the most sparkling detail of all was reserved for movement director Tom Jackson, who contrived to weave the quartet into countless inspired, cartwheeling blocks and huddles that were without exception visually energising and joyously relevant.

FUNNY EXCHANGES

All of this, of course, hinges on the actors. Faaizi Mbelizi played Kenny - believably - as the nervous, awkward one who belongs but feels he has to work to keep his place. He remains a chap while - as they enter Scotland - all three others transform into Scottish lasses, whose legs-crossed and elegant Edinburgh (or thereabouts) accents unleash a series of very funny exchanges. At times it’s hard to be sure which they are - chap or girl - at any moment, as they quickly and deftly slip from role to role. Though when Sim (the spectacularly good Carl Au) and Kenny disappear for a necking and grope behind the scenes, we’re assured that they represent one of each.

Fred Haig’s Blake is probably the sensible one, often putting his finger on the pulse and nursing in his shoulder bag the unfortunate Ross’s remains. But Carl Au’s Sim is a wondrous creation - constantly on edge, looking as if he wanted to be a rock star (and moving with the alacrity of one), by turns bossy, endlessly optimistic and surprisingly empathetic. Arguably it’s his fidgety, alternating personality that keeps the show firmly on the road, and his impersonation of Ross’s dad near the start is just one example of his unceasing versatility.

Ultimately Shea Davis’s ever-present, mysterious Ross carries the laurels, partly because he provides the most subtly observed of the girls when the ensemble changes roles, but perhaps mainly because he is the one who provides - so effectively - the serious, watchful element to this unfolding mock-saga. On this showing, Davis has a truly sophisticated sense of stagecraft at his young age (although they all have); and Graham has worked with him to evince a presence and role-play of tangible sensitivity.

The strange thing about this excellent, and excellently pieced together, show, is that on several occasions - a mock funeral procession that felt fearsomely true, and several of the trysts and jousts and nervy encounters which people this wonderfully evoked journey, or Ross’s hovering above, or the very word Ross (Macbeth) - one felt that this show and the Gray-Miller text had about it a lot of Shakespeare: Romeo particularly, but Hamlet, Richard III, and so on.

It’s famously and often said (take that as one may) that had Shakespeare been writing today he’d have been writing for Eastenders. Well, maybe he’d have written The Ostrich Boys

Runs till Saturday 24 September: www.belgrade.co.uk

Roderic Dunnett

13-09-16 

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