views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Zeus on the Loose
The Cockpit
23rd August 2018


Suzie Smith

Photography provided by Pandora's Door

It's not actually that easy to get into the underworld. I mean, it's not a case of dying and off you pop - no, no, you need to have exact change for the ferryman, or that's it, you're stuck wandering around aimlessly, unable to return to where you came from and unable to go where you had planned. It's an image that came to my head when trying to get into the one-night only performance of Zeus on the Loose. First, a mistrustful bouncer insisted on looking at my emails (since when did the Cockpit have such grumpy security on the door?) then a small, smartly-dressed child handed me a bag in which to place my phone (when has this ever been normal?), then I found myself waiting until 15 minutes after the planned curtain up time because Zeus (Darron Gifty) had apparently gone missing. The company did well to style it out by having Hades (Kyl Messios) glide through the bar area glaring and shouting at us, but next time, I'll remember to bring an obol. Probably easier.

Writer and director Emma Rollason has done an admirable job in hand-picking talent - her show features aerial silks, burlesque, dance and foot archery. These are the sort of grand acts you might expect at the Spiegeltent or Hippodrome, and the sheer anticipation of bringing them to a more traditional theatre venue creates a real buzz. Everyone is excited and everyone wants to like it. However, Rollason has taken a somewhat Mamma Mia!-esque approach to storytelling, which is to allow the desired material to dictate the plot, rather than the other way around. This lack of a strong narrative arc isn't helped by inaccuracies in the mythology - whilst not perhaps everyone will identify all of them, it is a risk to be splicing stories and characters to this degree, and there is an argument that Rollason would have been better off creating her own unique set of gods and goddesses if she wanted to employ such heavy artistic licence.

The opening forest setting feels less Mount Olympus and more Shire-like. It's a nice touch having the nymphs (Allie Ho Chee and Suzie Steel) draw us into the auditorium, and whilst opera singer Emma Walsh is reduced to the rather thankless position of providing filler background music, her vocals are some of the best of the night, and she deserves a shout out for her unnoticed brilliance. Although the use of projections to help define and frequently shift the location works really well in the Cockpit, the style of the animations perhaps doesn't quite fit with the overall tone.

Kyl Messios as Hades

Photography provided by Pandora's Door

Messios channels Tom Ellis playing Lucifer in his take on Hades. It's an engaging enough performance, but it adds to the confusion of the script. Hades, after all, rules over the Elysian Fields - he isn't just lord of all the bad bits. The Greek underworld and the Christian Hell are not one and the same and the suggestion that they might be is plain jarring. Further, it makes no sense that Hades would be sniffing around Medusa the Gorgon (Suzie Smith) - he pretty much stalked, kidnapped and Stockholm-Syndromed a pretty young maiden into marrying him. He didn't have an eye for fierce women with snake heads who turned men into stone - his Persephone was far more innocent and less likely to say no.

Why the minotaur (Marty Bindschatel), Perseus (Phyl Cashman) and Jason (Michael James) are pitted against each other in a game of Gods v Mortals is confusing. You almost wonder whether Rollason got the wrong -eus and was really shooting for Theseus. Similarly, it's baffling as to how Cleopatra has become Zeus's cousin. On the one hand, it allows Rollason to weave in a fun dance based on The Bangles' iconically catchy Walk Like An Egyptian, but it also undermines the mythology. When we hear Carmina Burana - a song written entirely in Latin as opposed to Ancient Greek - it adds to the growing sense of unease that something isn't quite right. Really, this whole production screams 'I learned all I know about classics third hand from pop culture references!'

The music and lyrics by Alan Harry and Elizabeth Lahav are somewhat weak - it's mainly Harry's repetitive melodies at fault. When the company abandons the original compositions - Latin songs aside - they are executed and received much better. Whilst Penni Tovey initially struggles with her vocals at the start of the show, with some quiet and pitchy moments, she claws it back with a heartfelt cabaret rendition of I Am What I Am. When these short big, punchy show tunes are combined with very fun routines that embrace dance tropes and don't take themselves too seriously, choreographers Chee, Cashman and James are responsible for some great moments. Chee and Smith, in particular, are magnetic dancers - mesmerisingly strong and yet still soft and feminine.

Smith's burlesque striptease generates a surprising lack of attention, but her aerial skills are rather more impressive as she twists, contorts and tumbles through the air. Now that I've seen such feats pulled off at the Cockpit, I want more. It's always been a venue known for its flexible layout and now I've seen a visiting company take it to new heights (literally). What Rollason has managed to achieve is a distinct air of glitz and glamour. Steel's foot archery is woven more successfully into the story arc than the other cabaret acts, by casting her as Artemis. It does, however, feel like there's quite a lot of build up for a limited pay off and her talents have surely been underutilised - I did expect more hunting from the goddess of the hunt.

Penni Tovey as Hera

Photography provided by Pandora's Door

The casting of Gifty and Tovey as Zeus and Hera is a smart decision. Gifty is a tall, chiselled six-pack on legs, with a full head of bouncy Afro hair and plenty of swagger. Tovey, whilst beautiful, is clearly older than him. Greek mythology paints Zeus as a womanising jerk who disregards his wife's feelings, so by making Zeus traditionally handsome and creating a visible age gap, this emphasises the gap in emotional intelligence between the two characters and adds a layer of plausibility to Zeus's immature behaviour.

Rollason is clearly ambitious and if she could take a step back from the excitement of what she could create and focus on the finer detail required to achieve that vision, there's no reason to doubt she could pull off something truly spectacular. It's a curious observation; often we find many directors struggle to look at the overall picture and yet that really isn't the case here. Rollason can see the wider view, but has scrimped on the planning required to turn her vision into something everyone else can see and fully appreciate.

On this occasion, Rollason has created a show where the sum of its parts is somehow less strong than the individual acts. They don't meld together to create something magical - there's an attempt to emulate the success of companies like Black Cat Cabaret, however, it falls well short of those gold standards. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the aerial skills and the dancing, the piece as a whole felt incoherent and lacking in identity. Rollason has all the players she needs and the appetite to create something glorious - she just needs to put a pin in the enthusiasm until she's done with all the necessary legwork. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan...

Zeus on the Loose ran on 23rd August 2018, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)

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