The Golden Fleece
ADC, Wed 1st-Sat 4th, 11pm
Down-and-out sheep farmer Murray dreams of the (self-)respect which comes from winning the prestigious Golden Fleece award, yet he is stuck in a rut of grief and despair from which he cannot escape. That all changes when his nephew comes to stay.The outline of this play sounds a lot darker than it actually is; in reality it is intensely funny and very entertaining, and it is easy to see why it was shortlisted for the 2013 Footlights Harry Porter Prize.
The latest offering from Ryan Ammar, adapter of last term’s highly praised production of Esio Trot, goes back to his New Zealand roots in a story about love, family, competition and, most of all, sheep. In a play like this, the little touches can make a big difference, and the care Ammar lavished on this script really shone through. Equally importantly, the cast lived up to and fulfilled the script’s expectations; the two features combined to produce a fantastic piece of theatre.
Max Roberts (Murray) was immediately hilarious. His timing and delivery were spot-on, but his real skill came across in his expressive face and body language: the levels of laughter which greeted his opening sequence, even before he had started speaking, attest to his comic acting talent. Yet he was far from one-dimensional; the character is one of tragicomedy, and the audience were at times audibly moved by his plight. His awkwardness was incredibly touching, especially his growing bond with his nephew Alex (Archie Henderson, a fantastic match and second-lead for Murray) and his shy and tentative flirtation with Katherine (Laura Jayne Ayres) which made up some of the funniest dialogue in the play.
The most bizarre character is Trevor, Murray’s great rival, played by Dominic Biddle. Everything about this character worked: his laugh, his tendency towards misuse of language and his preference for ‘structuralism’, his run, his clothes, the sexual tension with several of the other characters, his attire, his energy, even his relative lack of height compared to Murray and Alex. Without these elements, the play would still be very funny; with them, it reaches towards perfection.
Martha (played by Alys Williams) lacked realism, feeling more like a caricature (an image which built successfully upon her costume), but this was perfectly suited to the slight surreality of the scene in which she appeared. In contrast, the presence of Susie (Helen Charman) at the beginning and end of the piece framed this odd ovine world with rationality; her absence therefore signified all hell being let loose, a distinction which it was wise to include.
Perhaps more could have been made of the stage . In particular, an early scene relies on the presence of a door, but later in the same scene it was completely ignored, which undermined the staging slightly, but the scene-setting was successful, even without scene changes. Lighting and sound were both used to particular comic effect, the hallmark of a piece using everything at its disposal, and the sheep (which feature so prominently in the marketing) were superb.
There were a few minor flaws, certainly: the accents occasionally slipped, and a couple of one-liners, although funny, felt artificially inserted and so fell flat. Often, lines were drowned out by the laughter of the audience; but if that’s your biggest problem, you’ve got to be doing something right. This riotous ramble through rural New Zealand is how Exam Term should begin; a show as strong as this one is worth its weight in gold.