THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS
By Nigel Kneale (adapted by Ross Kelly) Directed by Ross Kelly & Daniel Thackeray
The Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester
Review by Brian Gorman
Producer Gareth Kavanagh, in collaboration with Scytheplays, succeeds brilliantly in bringing Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale’s provocative and visionary BBC tv play ‘The Year Of The Sex Olympics’ to the stage. I’ve been a big fan of Kneale’s for decades, and recently managed to catch up with the original television version, featuring the legendary Leonard Rossiter, but I can confidently say that this stage adaptation beats the beeb’s hands down. Performed in the small but superbly atmospheric upstairs theatre, The Salmon Rooms, I was mesmerised throughout. Set in a near future, the elite ‘Hi-Drives’ (the educated classes) live a sterile existence; all emotion blunted and human passions kept in check. The ‘Low-Drives’ (the working class) are pacified by an endless tv diet of hardcore pornography and barrel-scraping ‘entertainment’. The first half is set primarily in the television studios where our main protagonist Nat Mender (a compelling Alastair Gillies) beavers away to keep the ratings up on a series of dismal, morale sapping programmes that include a non-stop marathon of hardcore sex (the Olympics of the title). With such an intimate performing area the set is minimal, consisting only of a small control panel with its operators facing the audience. We (the actual audience) cleverly become part of the action as we stand in for the fictional audience. This caused quite a few laughs when disparaging comments from the Hi-Drive tv executives were aimed directly at us. Coordinator Ugo Priest (a relaxed and confident Howard Whittock) regularly reminds his team about ‘the old times’ when people were ruled by emotion, and ‘tension’ was the cause of much of society’s ills. A rebellious artist Kin Hodder (Will Hutchby giving an energetic and commanding performance) outrages the tv audience during one live transmission with his disturbingly violent paintings, and it soon becomes obvious that what’s needed to boost the ratings is a large dose of unfettered reality. The order is given to create a brand new show, the likes of which today’s viewers of ‘Big Brother’ will be only too (painfully) aware of. ‘The Live-Life Show’, for which Nat Mender and his family volunteer, sees the three of them existing alone on a remote island. Forced to rely on half-remembered skills such as fire-lighting, hunting and cooking food, and attending to minor accidental injuries, all under the relentless 24 hour cameras, which soon takes its toll. The deeper the family sink into despair, the higher the audience ratings, which made for a particularly uncomfortable, yet thought-provoking experience for this particular theatre-goer.
Directors Ross Kelly and Daniel Thackeray crafted a tight, superbly-acted, and often worryingly realistic production. With the characters speaking in a basic, staccato, text-like style (language in the future being reduced in vocabulary so as to weed out any troublesome emotion), it is up to the actors to portray the simmering feelings beneath the surface. As Nat Mender, Alastair Gillies is tremendous, and gives a beautifully nuanced performance. Claire Dean partners him brilliantly as Deanie Webb (the mother of Mender’s child), with a scene-stealing Michelle Ashton completing the family as teen-age Keten. The three give heartbreaking performances as their terrifying experience (mentally, emotionally, and physically) on the island brings them gradually closer until tragedy strikes in a horrifying climax to the play. Watching the family’s struggles from the comfort of the television station are Mender’s colleagues, laughing at every painful mishap, and relishing the boost in ratings. Benjamin Patterson is as cold as ice portraying the back-stabbing Lasar Opie, while Louise Hamer matches him in throwaway callousness as the shallow Misch. Determined to boost the ratings ever higher, Opie reasons that Mender’s family must be put through absolute hell, and he introduces a psychotic killer onto the island (Phil Dennison – suitably unhinged and carved seemingly from rock itself) and his mistreated wife Betty (Leni Murphy, excelling as a living ragdoll, and almost unrecognisable in several other roles).
This fantastic production of The Year Of The Sex Olympics is terrifying, hilarious, disturbing, thought-provoking, unsettling, and yet another major triumph for The Lass O’Gowrie and Scytheplays. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, this is now getting pretty ridiculous, as almost everything I see by these talented producers is so good that most other stuff I go to (no matter how high profile, expensive, or starrily-cast) often pales in comparison.
Unfortunately, this production ended on 31st July (I've had problems uploading the review, so many apologies for the delay!)