Richard Hope's first full-length play Odysseus Thump takes its bizarre title firstly from protagonist Norman's weekend wanderings around the district of Failsworth and Chadderton in Lancashire, and secondly from his attitude to going where he is invited: like the character in a children's rhyme he recalls, when asked home by Mickey Thump, he "thowt a bit an' thowt a bit an' thowt a wouldna mind". David Threlfall, with a shock of white hair on his crown, another on his chin and Norman's lucky bobble-hat, moves aound the levels of Peter Mumford's steeply terraced stage, encountering on his peregrinations a range of characters from the local floosie to the ghosts of his brother and mother.
As with the title, there are two distinct levels to Hope's play, one more successful than the other. Norman's mourning for the passing of the world he once knew – lamenting that the canal has been filled in beneath the M8, or that B&Q is open on Sunday whilst the Church of the Holy Trinity is not – will strike a chord with most people, not necessarily limited to those of Norman's age. On the other hand, Hope is intent on signposting Homeric parallels: Norman's surname is Nestor; he is married to to Penelope (she's the wife of the pub landlord, Hector) but to Cilla; his first major tussle of the weekend is with a one-eyed football refereee named Clopsie.
Sometimes the citations are playful (even a sporting injury is, of course, to the Achilles tendon; the tarty Laura Leigh's name might recall Lorelei the siren, but the actual sirens turn up later, on top of a police car), sometimes irritating (Laura turns out to be Circe, the sorceress who turns men into swine, and is hardly allowed to speak without getting in a men-are-pigs remark; Odysseus the seaman notes that the old Ferranti building in Failsworth is now run by Siemens; occasionally Norman comes out with a line much too portentous to be in character, simply so that another mythological allusion can be made).
Director Jude Kelly rightly pays attention to the foreground story, letting the classical citations take care of themselves. She also does her best to gloss over the conclusion to Norman's tale, which branches further out from either Lancastrian everyday or simple classical parallel into an insufficiently explained surreal nightmare. Threlfall's portrayal of Norman, too, creates an unfailing sympathy for the character even at his most drunken and obstreperous, whilst Lesley Nicol wrests as many of the laughs as she reasonably can from beneath his nose. Hope, meanwhile, will find a more impressive authorial voice as his impulse towards ostentation lessens; James Joyce, after all, ultimately deleted the Homeric chapter titles from his version of the Odyssey.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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