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.

Interview: Andrew Maddock and Niall Phillips, Olympilads

Lonesome Schoolboy Productions are director Niall Phillips and writer Andrew Maddock. Following their acclaimed collaborations on In/Out (A Feeling) and He(Art), in August they return with Olympilads, a new play inspired by the legacy of London 2012, which was selected to be part of Scott Ellis’ first season as Artistic Director of Theatre N16.

“At its most base level and without giving a hell of a lot away, Olympilads is about three siblings, trying to bring their family back together under the backdrop of the Olympic Games,” explains Andrew, one of The Independent‘s Playwrights to Dominate 2017. “It’s a piece about family loyalty and about making the right decisions.

“I originally wrote the play in 2012 as an almost cynical response to the mood in London. I’m a Londoner and while I enjoyed the spirit of the Games and what it represented, I really resented the message being delivered, which was that the Games were going to leave this lasting legacy on the normal working people of London, especially our most vulnerable. Five years removed, I see lots of new buildings, new housing that only the select few can participate in. I see lots of disparity, I actually see London 2012 being a catalyst to remove a lot of people from where they were born and bred.”

Andrew wants his audiences to question the motives of the characters and put themselves in their shoes: “There are decisions made that I think in a normal, loving, safe environment, someone would never have to make,” he says. “I always want an audience member to put themselves in the shoes of a person who might not have the life they’ve had and try and see it from their perspective.”

Niall founded Lonesome Schoolboy in 2010. “Lonesome was set up with a dream to create exciting work, meet new people and be in charge of what happens next,” he says. “This industry is very tough, it’s a waiting game. I’m the least patient person I know, I want it now – so the best way was to be the person to start the process.

“The aim has never changed, to make excellent work and also to give opportunities to people starting out, the people that really want it, the driven and the passionate. We always incorporate special needs within our projects and get issues on stage we really care about. That will never change.”

Andrew continues, “I met Niall when I performed my debut show The Me Plays at The Old Red Lion. We’ve been collaborating since 2015 and I’ve enjoyed every second, we have so much in common as friends and then theatrically can have so many disagreements, in the best possible way. He challenges the way I see theatre and vice versa. But we do agree on a common thing, which is making sure we’re putting on the best possible product we can with the tools we have available to us!”

Olympilads marks the start of Lonesome Schoolboy’s summer season of new writing, which also includes the premiere of Turkey by new associate writer Frankie Meredith. Niall explains: “So we have two brand new plays that we are delighted to be bringing to the stage. But alongside that we are offering the free workshops that get loads of people together and making work!”

“These are just something we wanted to do to meet new likeminded people,” adds Andrew. “We cast two parts in Olympilads straight out of the workshop. I’m not a massive fan of ‘auditioning’ as someone who entered the industry as an actor, I find it a crap process. I also see a lot of the same faces when we put something out for an audition, and I really want to be as diverse as I can in our choices. I always want to see the right person for the part, but from a broader spectrum.

“I want to see people work in the room with other people, I want to know who they are as a person. Especially as we make and produce our own work, we answer to nobody at the moment – which means I can meet an exciting actor, have an idea for their voice and get about writing it. Olympilads went through a complete rewrite, simply based on our casting. I’m really excited about it.

“So why should people take part? We’ll always have a free workshop in our line of activities, so it’s accessible and it’s a chance to meet other people, network and interact. It’s kind of the whole reason why I wanted to get into this profession.”

“We’ll also be doing Q&A sessions and new writing nights based on the pieces we will present,” concludes Niall. “We want to get out there and get to know loads of creatives, make new friends and spread the positive vibes that sometimes this industry drains out of you.”

Olympilads runs at Theatre N16 from 8th-26th August.

Review: He(art) at Theatre N16

Andrew Maddock has already established himself as a writer to watch with his previous work, including In/Out (A Feeling) and more recently, The We Plays. In particular, he really knows how to create characters that we care about, so that when the story suddenly takes a darker turn, we’re caught totally off guard. He(art), Maddock’s latest play, follows a similar trajectory, setting up two separate but equally compelling stories before smashing them together in an explosive final scene.

Alice is looking for a painting to buy with her boyfriend Rhys. But he’s reluctant to commit – to a piece of art or anything else, including seeing a doctor about his congenital heart condition. Meanwhile Kev’s just got out of prison and is hatching a plan with his sister Sam to get the money they need for their dying Mum’s medical treatment – by stealing the very painting Alice and Rhys have their eye on…

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

At first glance, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t quite make sense. How did posh gallery curator Alice get together with “Wembley Warrior” window cleaner Rhys? Why do Kev and Sam have to steal that particular painting (and why any painting, come to that)? What happened to their dad? And what does die Maus Head Man have to do with anything?

We don’t get all the answers, but that’s sort of the whole point – Maddock gives us a sketchy snapshot of events, and how we fill in the blanks is up to us. If a few of those events are slightly random, well it just makes the overall impression more interesting – like a mouse head that triples a painting’s value. The opening scene, in which Alice tries unsuccessfully to teach Rhys about art, is actually as much for the audience as it is for him, letting us know that just because we don’t have all the info it doesn’t mean we can’t flesh out the story in our own way. The stage in director Niall Phillips’ production is a roped-off gallery space; the props are exhibits hanging from the ceiling, as is the painting at the heart of it all. This play is a piece of art in itself, to be examined, discussed and interpreted, not simply accepted at face value.

But as the title suggests, there’s more than just art here – there’s also a huge amount of heart. This manifests itself in small ways, like Rhys’ pride in the fact his are the only streak-free windows on the high street, or in Sam’s eclectic music collection and the affection for Johnny Cash that she shares with her brother. But it’s also built into the relationships of the characters; this is a story that’s absolutely driven by the heart instead of the head. On paper, Rhys and Alice’s relationship should never work. Sam and Kev’s planned heist is doomed to failure. And yet we find ourselves willing both to succeed, because both are motivated by that most fundamental of human emotions: love.

Photo credit: Jesse Night
Photo credit: Jesse Night

This love comes through powerfully in the four actors’ performances. Jack Gogarty and Alex Reynolds are very natural together as Rhys and Alice, revelling in their light-hearted banter about the value (or not) of Banksy and a recent scandal in the porn industry. But their relationship is just as convincing in its more intense moments; her anxiety about his health and his longing for a normal life both feel entirely genuine. Similarly, the close sibling relationship between Kev and Sam, played beautifully by Shane Noone and Flora Dawson, feels completely authentic, precisely because it isn’t picture perfect – his concern for her welfare is frequently tinged with impatience and even violence, while her childlike emotional vulnerability and desperate desire to please him put everything at risk more than once.

In He(art), Andrew Maddock has another hit on his hands; it’s a poignant and at times very funny story of two halves – and if this time the twist in the tale isn’t entirely unexpected, that doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch. (One of the great things about theatre in the round is you can see how other audience members are reacting, and it’s safe to say I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat there at the end.) Most importantly, it reminds us that whether we’re talking about painting, music or even window cleaning, there’s no such thing as “just art”.

He(art) is at Theatre N16 until 28th January.

Review: The We Plays at The Hope Theatre

The two pieces that make up Andrew Maddock’s The We Plays tell quite different stories. In one, a young tourist desperately chases the perfect Cyprus sunset, despite the best efforts of the airline, the weather and the annoying family next door to foil him. In the other, a feisty Scottish redhead takes on the Glasgow job market armed with her well-written CV, several gallons of Irn Bru and… a Viking helmet (obviously).

cyprus-sunsets-the-we-plays
Photo credit: @headshottoby

Different stories they may be, staged by different directors (Phil Croft and Ashley Winter respectively), but these two monologues have a common trajectory: they both creep up on us, drawing us into the characters’ lives and experiences, and making us laugh with their spot-on observations about their fellow human beings. And then each suddenly takes a dark and disorienting turn, so that before we know it we’re hearing quite a different story than the one we expected.

Now, I must admit I’ve seen the first piece, Cyprus Sunsets, before, so I wasn’t as taken aback this time by the twist in the tale – but that didn’t ruin it for me. In a way, knowing what’s coming actually makes the piece more powerful; there are hints scattered throughout that give the words new significance, and force us to consider how what’s really happening could have gone unnoticed for so long. And John Seaward’s performance as frustrated tourist Me is certainly no less mesmerising, entertaining or emotionally shattering second time around. To hold a roomful of people spellbound for 50 minutes whilst armed only with a suitcase and a pair of sunglasses is no mean feat, yet Seaward commands our attention with ease.

Irn Pru is, on the surface, the funnier of the two (although Cyprus Sunsets‘ biting commentary on the horror that is Brits abroad shouldn’t go unmentioned). Jennifer O’Neill swaggers around the stage, unafraid to stare down – and at one point openly rebuke – audience members, as Pru channels the voice of her idol Michelle Mone (of bra fame) and demands that we line up to pay our respects. But there’s a softer side to the character, which first comes across in her evident love for her country; “my Glasgow, my Scotland” is a frequent tender refrain, and we’ve fallen for Pru long before we learn the devastating secret that turns out to be the real point of the story.

irn-pru-the-we-plays-1
Photo credit: @headshottoby

Andrew Maddock’s rhyming verse is surprisingly easy on the ear, laced with fun surprises (I particularly enjoyed “trapped in / this crap tin”) and a regular return to key words and passages of the text, which gradually gain new meaning as we learn more about the characters. And as hard-hitting as both pieces undoubtedly are, exploring with unflinching honesty some troubling and hugely relevant topics, there’s an element of hope to each. This means the audience walks out feeling, yes, a bit emotionally battered, but still far from defeated by what we’ve seen. Life does go on, after all, and – like Maddock’s characters – we have to go on with it.

Powerful writing, captivating performances and creative staging (who knew there were so many uses for a suitcase?) make The We Plays a must see double bill.

The We Plays is at The Hope Theatre until 15th October.

Review: Data at New Wimbledon Studio

Direct marketing is an industry we all know exists, and which we probably all realise is not a Good Thing – and yet it continues to thrive. Andrew Maddock’s new play Data, part of the Illuminate Festival at New Wimbledon Studio, aims to expose a little about how the system works, and maybe make us think twice about the many ways we willingly offer up our personal details every day.

DATA

We all know the direct marketing industry is a bit shady, but it’s also easy to dismiss as a minor irritation that doesn’t really hurt anyone. And, let’s face it, it’s not the most glamorous subject in the world. So, like all the most successful marketing campaigns, Data appeals to our emotional side in order to get the message across.

Directed by Phil Croft, three characters reveal different aspects of the industry – each beginning within their own carefully defined space before spilling out as their stories begin to interconnect. At the business end, where data is bought and sold, are professionals like Gaz and Rachel, whose job is first to get us to part with our data, and then to use it against us. The play, presented in a poetic style, manages to explain this in relatively simple terms and in a way that keeps the subject interesting, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a hugely complex system with a multitude of loopholes. 

At the other end of the story are those most at risk from Gaz and Rachel’s underhand tactics – like Bev, a lonely, confused old lady who doesn’t even remember what happened yesterday, let alone understand what TPS stands for.

Not entirely surprisingly, this is very much a story of good versus evil – and just to make sure we’re in no doubt, there’s a parallel drawn more than once between dealing in data and dealing in drugs. (“I just want leads… I think them about them all the time,” is a repeated refrain.) Gaz (Sam Ducane) is an utterly despicable character, motivated solely by money and ambition, who clearly sold his soul to the devil a long time ago, while Bev (Jean Apps) is a victim in every possible way: she’s a widow, her granddaughter wants little to do with her, her son’s moved to Australia in unpleasant circumstances; even her dog’s dead. If this were a Comic Relief video, Jean Apps’ performance would have us all reaching for our phones.

Between these two extremes – and saving the play from becoming too clean-cut – lies Rachel (Helena Doughty), with an intriguing storyline, and, it seems, at least traces of a conscience. Even as she plans her marketing campaigns for maximum emotional impact on strangers, she’s concerned for her nan’s wellbeing at the hands of other marketers, and fails to see that she herself has been manipulated by Gaz into handing over information of a different but no less powerful kind. As the one character who we don’t totally love or loathe, it would be great to see Rachel’s story developed further, particularly the relationship between what happened in her past and her attitude towards her work. Which is not to say Gaz and Bev’s stories aren’t interesting; it’s just that Rachel feels like the seesaw that could tip the balance, for better or worse.

Data certainly succeeds in provoking an emotional response, although it perhaps lacks a clearly defined call to action. The play makes us think about where our own data goes, and explains how we can protect ourselves through services like TPS (though even these, we’re told, are possible to get around). But there’s a wider problem here, which the play does a great job of educating us about – and then leaves us wondering, what can be done?