Romeo and Juliet from Oddsocks at Coventry Belgrade
 

 

romeo and juliet

Romeo and Juliet

Coventry Belgrade

****

What have Scampi and Chips, a sort-of Harley Davidson, shinning-down drainpipes (painfully!), personal counselling, a church door, a couple of travelling trunks, green and white squared tablecloths with matching apron and headband, fried chicken, Capulets and Montagues got in common?

They all surface (of course) in Oddsocks Productions’ latest impudent re-enaction of Romeo and Juliet, which this offbeat, off-beam, outlandish, cheeky and rather brilliant company is touring, with their latest Macbeth (Shakespeare being their raison d’être) to venues – often imaginative and unusual ones, from Hexham to Chepstow, Devon to Cumbria – across Britain, including a Fried Chicken three-week showing during August in Jersey and Guernsey: they’ve given the Scilly Isles a miss this time.

Their avowed aim is to breathe new life into Shakespeare. Not half!

It’s when Capulet (Juliet’s bossy dad) appears speaking in the broadest Black Country accent that I finally gave in, fell about laughing and split my sides. He and Tybalt (the motorbiker) were both played by Andy Barrow, not quite the onlie begetter but 50 percent of the founding father and mother of this hilarious set-up:

Barrow (not Andy Barrell, of Ewan McGregor/Brassed Off fame) met Producer and fellow Director Elli Mackenzie at drama college (the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, now part of the Central School of Speech and Drama) and the pair married.

juliet

Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee. Juliet drinks from the fateful vial 

After a fair few seasons of TV drama and theatre appearances (including the English Speaking Theatre of Frankfurt – now there’s one for the books), in 1989 the husband and wife team formed Oddsocks.

Mackenzie became Oddsocks’ shrewish Kate, innocently pure Miranda, and Richard III’s nemesis Elisabeth Woodville (grandmother of Henry VIII) a performance doubtless as fabulous and forceful as rising star Samuel Barnett was in drag as Woodville in (Sir) Mark Rylance’s gloriously nasty recent version on Shaftesbury Ave.

The main point, above all, is to say why Oddsocks are so clever. Arriving for the first few jokes and asides and cheeky interplay with the audience I thought I wouldn’t be convinced. But then I became a convert. And it’s because amid all the pantomime shenanigans, the dotty entries and exits, the crazy handwaving and waterpipe scuttling of newcomer Matthew Burns’ pretty unlikely Romeo, the suitably ghastly London East End accent and girls-on-a-mini-skirted clubbing-night-out-in-Nottingham demeanour of Pippa Lewis – also new (and several parts did sound straight out of Eastenders) they made the play work. They were totally loyal to it.

The best example, for my money, was fabulous, empathetic black actor Alexander Bean (a big chappie) doubling Friar Lawrence with Mercutio. Much of the detail – eg the latter being wounded under Romeo’s intrusive arm – was adapted slightly, always cleverly. The Friar was a Fryer, who presided over a fish and chips and saveloys and chickenburger restaurant, at which Romeo occasionally served. But fine though his acting was, his speaking of Shakespeare’s lines was so fabulous, I could listen to him for hours.

As key parts of the play are done by Oddsocks straight, from time to time, it was Alexander Bean above all who furnished atmosphere most strongly and empathetically. His advice to, and exchanges with, Romeo (hence the addition of ‘Counselling’ on the Chippy sign) was given as well as in any version I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a production which puts a gay or even pederastic slant to their relationship, but I’m sure someone has, and it would be nice to see one sometime. 

And when everything goes pear-shaped, as when the despatched servant returns (from Manchester, believe it or not) without having delivered the crucial letter, and thus guarantees the deaths of the two lovers, and even of Gavin Harrison’s gloriously camp-looking, in fact rather French, Count Paris (all of that was staged with a mix of comedy and directness – even Romeo addressing the audience, rather like Shakespeare’s Bottom, and it worked really well), Lawrence’s reaction epitomised the grief we all felt; we never saw the reconciliation of the houses, because there was no Montague and his wife (Rebecca Little, a deliciously funny, fretful, scuttling Nurse); and as the programme points out, we don’t even know why they fell out in the first place. Perhaps Andy Barrow’s Tybalt had caused it. Anyone would take against him. Or perhaps in Renaissance Verona, as in Tuscan San Gimignano, they just built turrets and fired arrows or grapeshot at each other.

So this production was, in its way and on its own terms, a triumph. I would love to see their Macbeth, and Barrow as Caliban, Iago, Malvolio, Oberon and Petruchio must have been a treat. It’s a good company which takes itself (paradoxically) seriously, but more important, takes the text seriously and pays due and fitting tribute to it. Comedy out of Tragedy, Tragedy out of Comedy. That’s what Shakespeare himself did, with the Porter and Dogberry and even Lear’s Fool. Oddsocks’ stagings are just perfect for a huge range of audiences – children from say five upwards, elderly crocks like me, and even bolshy teens and twenty-somethings.

They’d all be bowled over, not least by the company’s musical skills, which seem to be de rigueur these days. Tremendous talent end energy, beautifully shared out.

Roderic Dunnett

20-06-17 

Romeo and Juliet will be at mac in Cannon Hill park with an outdoor performance on 15 July with Macbeth the following evening.

ODDSOCKS

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