Louise Page’s Golden Girls (RSC 1984) is, for me, the seminal work about athletes. Featuring Kate Buffery and a young Kenneth Branagh it had clues in its title – the plural “Girls” told us it was about some female athletes – a relay team at the Olympics – and their quest for gold. It was good to see a revival of it at Central a few years back – it hadn’t aged.
So writer Andrew Maddock immediately chucks us a curve ball with his Olympilads: it’s not about “lads” plural – it’s about just one lad who is a runner and, frankly, it’s not really about the Olympics at all – though there are some cursory mentions of Usain Bolt and Games Makers. This might sound a bit picky but as a serial appreciator of Maddock’s work – He(art) here at N.16 and The We Plays at The Hope – I feel I have the license to be picky.
And as someone who has spent fifteen years bringing up a top athlete I know a bit about the subject and although probably most of the audience may not have the same ITK, detail is important; and detail comes from research.
Details of training and footwear and focus and motivation are considerably awry here which is a shame because, as per usual, Maddock has written a very watchable play.
Maddock’s strengths are his ear for dialogue, his ability to develop intriguing and real characters and his exploration of relationships. In this play we have a three-way sibling conflict with youngest brother Darren (Nebiu Samuel) being the selfish, spoilt, brat-like whinger who is the Olympic-dreaming athlete taking advantage of older brother Simeon’s replacement father-figure encouragement and largesse – Dad died, it’s suggested, due to the rigours of getting his athlete son to training and races. And Darren is at four-year loggerheads (post-Dad’s death) with sister Abigail – they haven’t met since the infamous hot-bowl- of-soup- at-head throwing incident. One has to say that the qualities just described are not normally associated with top athletes: single-mindedness, yes; selfishness, no. The focus and the energy have to be channelled into their sport.
As the runner, Samuel has drawn the short straw here. Director Niall Phillips makes him run – before the show, during the show, after the show – the full length of the “track” that runs diagonally from corner to corner of the in-the-round (square) configuration. This means that Samuel, who has a very light voice, is often breathless, sometimes on the move and normally competing with the sound-system in his monologues. Yes – he’s difficult to hear. The “track” is constructed out of rostra-tops, noisy and reverberating when run upon, which build to a hump in the middle: very un-track-like. And Darren’s frequent running from one-side to another is an unwelcome distraction: surely it would be better to see him go through his warm-up drills and stretching routines rather than all the running: less noisy, more authentic.
The real meat of the show though is the symbiotic relationship between Abigail and Simeon. Lurching from affectionate to explosive through blaming and forgiving, you cannot take your eyes off these two as they go at it.
Michelle Barwood as Abigail brings the dialogue to life with her natural, unforced delivery and her innate understanding of how families work – or don’t work as the case might be. Rhys Yates (no relation) as Simeon is brilliant. Again, the dialogue is excellent but this is not an easy role to play, lurching as he does from sh*t-head younger brother’s punch-bag to head-of-the-family-esque negotiator, pacifier and appeaser. I did detect a slight change of accent half-way through though – couldn’t work out if this was deliberate.
Despite reservations, with the Maddock hall-marks, Olympilads has the makings of a really good piece. I would advise, though, much further research on runners and consider changing Darren’s sport to former athlete before
Dad’s death to, say, gamer: they’re very selfish and spoilt and brat-like and he could whinge on about how he used to be an athlete. Presumptuous of me, I know. But I would love to see this piece achieve its full potential.
Review by Peter Yates
Darren’s convinced he’s going to beat Usain Bolt in the Men’s 100m Finals.
Abigail won’t stop applying varnish to her fingernails.
Simon just wants to make sure his brother and sister are both eating right.
Rhys Yates (Simeon)
Michelle Barwood (Abigail)
Nebiu Samuel (Darren)
Writer – Andrew Maddock
Director – Niall Phillips.
Produced by Lonesome Schoolboy Productions.
Production Assistant –
Lighting – Tom Turner
Sound – Mercy Phillips
PR – Ros Fraser
Producer: Lonesome Schoolboy Productions
Read our interview with Niall Phillips
Theatre N16 77 Bedford Hill, London SW12 9HD