Review: Olympilads at Theatre N16

It came as a shock to me a few weeks ago when I realised it was already the fifth anniversary of the London 2012 opening ceremony. It’s a night most of us will remember as one of patriotic pride and huge anticipation of what this prestigious event would mean, for our country in general and the people of London in particular.

Five years later, Andrew Maddock’s new play Olympilads – set during London 2012 – questions whether that promised legacy was ever really going to bring much benefit to the people on the doorstep. The story focuses on three siblings, Abigail (Michelle Barwood), Simeon (Rhys Yates) and Darren (Nebiu Samuel), as they try to rebuild their fraught relationship following the death of their father.

Photo credit: Kathy Trevelyan

The main sticking point is Darren, the youngest, whose deluded belief that he can win a gold medal in the 100m has become an obsession. Darren’s demanding and manipulative, but it seems the best anyone outside the family has been able to come up with is to suggest that he channel his aggression into a sport; after all, the Olympics are coming up. Taking care of him has become a full-time job – one that may well have contributed to their father’s death, and which Simeon was forced to take on when Abigail left.

Needless to say, the short one-act play packs quite a punch; there’s a lot of bitterness, anger and regret coming from all three characters, revealing itself in different ways. As Simeon, Rhys Yates has the shell-shocked expression of a young man forced to grow up and shoulder a massive responsibility overnight. He’s caught in the middle between the fiery temperaments of his brother and sister, but reserves his own anger for the lack of support he and Darren have received from external agencies.

Michelle Barwood’s Abigail appears at first to be the toughest of the three – but she struggles with her complicated feelings towards her brothers, and Darren in particular; while her affection for Simeon is obvious, it’s not clear how much she really wants to connect with their younger brother. Completing the cast is Nebiu Samuel, who perfectly captures the complexity of Darren’s character – on the one hand he’s a victim who’s been convinced by others that he has what it takes to be a champion; on the other he’s a bully, who’s grown used to throwing tantrums in order to get what he wants. Because of this, the play’s conclusion is a perfect balance of satisfying and devastating.

Photo credit: Kathy Trevelyan

Niall Phillips’ production is set in the round, in a room directed with British flag bunting, and with a raised stage area running through the middle that doubles as both a track and a podium. There are some other, more subtle nods to the Olympics too; Abigail’s posture as she prepares for her encounter with Darren, for example, is that of an athlete on the start line, and Simeon unknowingly echoes his brother’s line – “I ran and I ran and I ran until I couldn’t run anymore” – when remembering his old life as a petty criminal. The audience is involved throughout, with the actors more than once speaking directly to us, making us a sounding board for their views on family and society.

With the World Athletics Championships drawing to a close at the Olympic Stadium, it couldn’t be a more appropriate time to look back at the Games and reflect on their impact. Andrew Maddock has pitched this perfectly – there’s never any attempt to detract from the excitement or patriotism that London 2012 inspired, but just enough simmering anger to make us take another look. And even if you take the Olympics out of the equation altogether, Olympilads is a powerful family drama that successfully explores the complex relationships between its characters. The brevity of the play is such that we don’t get into this perhaps as much as we could, and the ending comes very suddenly; it would be great to see the piece further developed, as the story and characters are certainly interesting enough to go the distance.

Olympilads is at Theatre N16 until 26th August.

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