I had a lovely, unseasonally sunny experience on Sunday evening when I caught Oddsocks’s touring production of Julius Caesar in the delightful Valentines Park in Ilford — one of London’s many well-kept secrets. And I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at a show since One Man Two Guvnors.
Andy Barrow co-founded Derby-based Oddsocks in 1989 with his wife Elli Mackenzie. He directs the shows and on this occasion plays Brutus. Barrow’s account of this great assassination story which changed the course of history is about as serious as The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe to which, come to think of it, it owes quite a lot.
Think Horrible Histories meets Reduced Shakespeare Company meets Propeller’s ‘pocket’ versions spiced with plenty of panto and more than a nod to Carry On Cleo, complete with hilarious asides and visual puns. There’s even a whiff of Avenue Q with a couple of life-sized puppets to enlarge the cast. It’s a highly entertaining cocktail.
Yes, as I Tweeted in the interval, it’s a wonderful romp. But it’s also more than that. At the heart of the production is Shakespeare’s language sensitively delivered. Barrow in particular is a fine and resonant verse speaker, but so are the four accomplished actors working with him. Of course the text is heavily cut and the cast continually dive in and out of it, but all the memorable bits are there and it’s an approach which makes for unusually strong story telling and the Battle of Philippi is gloriously imaginative.
I was fascinated by the learning which was going on in the all-sorts audience. It included some very ‘mature’ people and dozens of children. The local vicar was there with his dog. I was immediately behind the Mayor of Redbridge whose services were required at the end to hold the sword for Brutus to run onto - another bit of splendid ad lib comedy. “Yes, theatre for the people is what we’re about” Barrow told me cheerfully in the interval.
All the children were absorbed. In particular I noticed a straight-backed, cross-legged, wide eyed little girl on a rug near the front. She was totally engaged by everything going on in front of her. What a lovely introduction to Shakespeare and a very traditional, interactive form of live theatre. One very articulate boy was laughing with Barrow at the merchandise stall in the interval about a remembered ad-lib joke in last year’s Macbeth. And I heard one child say happily at the end: “See you next year.” I certainly wasn’t the only endorphin-flooded person leaving the park at the end.
I shall write more about the work of Oddsocks in The Stage soon. Meanwhile you can catch the Julius Caesar tour in venues as various as Stratford-upon-Avon, Channel Islands, East Sussex and Berkhamsted until September 22.