Odyssey Steps

Devised by Simon Ford and James Yarker, with Denise Stanton and Jack Trow

Stan's Café

Clocktower, Croydon

(2009)

Review by Howard Loxton

This is described on this Birmingham-based company's website as "the latest in a series of 'not quite theatre' shows that have brought Stan's Café international acclaim". Not quite theatre? I agree, for this is not an interaction between actor and performer but a piece where the audience member becomes performer, following a 'script' laid out as vinyl images placed on floor, walls and other surfaces to lead them on a journey theoretically enabling them to act out the incidents of the story. The concept is described as inspired by teach-yourself-to-dance floor mats and presumably you are intended to place your feet - and perhaps hands too - directly on the positions marked out by vinyl stickers.

The silhouette of an armoured warrior greets you on the glass entrance doors of the Clocktower complex, in the lobby in front of it the floor is marked with arrows, swords, helmets and what might be huge horseshoes - presumably the detritus of the Trojan War, and a sign alongside informs 'The answers aren't always simple but place yourself in the story and thinking imaginatively you should be able to sort out the adventure for yourselves.' That's all the help you get. No clear instructions. No hint as to what this story might be.

Perhaps, once upon a time, when Greek classic poetry, for some at least, was part of the school syllabus or at least retellings of the ancient stories were a common part of juvenile reading, you might have been able to assume that everyone would know Homer's epic tale of Odysseus's ten-year journey home from Troy with all its monsters faced, dangers navigated and temptations overcome. But today? Come off it! People need more help than this if they are personally going to act it out until eventually reaching home in Ithaca and wife Penelope.

It's easy enough to see vinyls of a helmet and a sword upon the floor; but are we casting them away or picking them up? Walk through the surf, clamber unto a raft - the square shape doesn't look like a boat, pick up the paddles (all these just vinyl silhouettes, not props, of course) and set off. There are places where the route crosses and it is not clear where to go. Some numbers with directional arrows don't seem to mark a sequence, I'm not sure what they are for, but I know the Odyssey reasonably well and could identify most of the challenges and episodes: Cyclops - very big feet and an arrow in his eye (shouldn't that be a burning brand?) though it looks more like a rams horns that a giant's head - and those horns are the only reminder of the means by which to escape his cave - six-headed Scylla, whirlpool Charybdis, wine, cheese and pig trotter footprints for Circe's isle and her malignant spells, the flowery land of the Lotus Eaters, a chain that holds Odysseus to the mast while his mariners go off to join the Sirens (though why the years he spends on Circe's isle should be marked off on the same mast I can't imagine. There are shapes that might be bombs but I expect are the bags of wind that were Aeolus' gift, the Thunderflash and birds of Zeus, a speech bubble suggest the meeting with his mother's spirit (you can see her if you press the button for the lift which could be used to make a short cut to reach Ithaca), there is flowery lotus land and some images of warriors a fleet of ships and the Trojan Horse for when Odysseus tells others his tale.

I could not work out what some rounded oblongs represented and couldn't remember an episode linked to a bird and nest of eggs or a fire and fish bones but eventually found my way up stairs where a walking staff image indicates that Odysseus puts on his old man disguise. And round spots mark its path beside his feet. A woman here asks him if he would like a drink - could this high heeled shoe really represent his old nurse? And where is son Telemachus or Argus, Odysseus' faithful hound?

If you enter the building through another door the footsteps are those of Penelope and what I presume are the suitors who seek to marry her assuming Odysseus dead. Just beyond the bar they meet up with Odysseus - a speech bubble on a table asks him why he took so long. If you know the story, like me you can probably work most of it out, and perhaps appreciate the thought that has gone into the images and symbols. If you don't, then perhaps you could invent your own story but any sense of theatre must lie in the challenges that Odysseus has to face and how to solve them and there is too little indication of what any challenge is and no clues to the solution and I at least don't find vinyl silhouettes work as interactive opponents!

This works only as a recognition game; it certainly doesn't spark of any sense of dramas there is nothing to react against. OK, I may have to feeble an imagination but I'd love to see the creators showing us how they expect people to 'perform'. Not quite theatre? Nowhere near it as far as I am concerned!

At Croydon Clocktower (not Sundays) until 10th October 10am - 8pm, though Tuesday - Saturday the library closes at 6pm and you will miss the Cyclops segment.