The Complete World of Sports (Abridged)
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
York Theatre Royal
From 13 June 2012 to 25 August 2012
Review by Mark Smith
The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been in existence since the early 1980s, and though none of the founder members are still involved with its running, the three performers in the company's current show have between them nearly sixty years' experience in reducing Shakespeare and other great works, so this is the real deal—by no means a watered down syndication.
It is, however, something of a departure, as the majority of the company's previous abridgements have concentrated on arts subjects—Shakespeare, of course, but also film, the history of the world, and indeed 'All the Great Books'. After a successful run with The Complete World of Sports (Abridged) on the other side of the pond, the company is embarking on a marathon tour (pun intended and, in my defence, borrowed) of the UK, including a protracted stay in the West End's Arts Theatre.
For those unfamiliar with the work of the R(educed)SC, the closest analogy would be that of a bouncy three-man cross between pantomime and sketch show. A joyous love of puns and silly, home-made props propels the boyish, skilled performers through the 100-minute show, and from the outset the trio are confident, amiable stage presences.
Their simple aim here is to cover every single sport ever played anywhere. This means working through a quirky list of continents and categories including 'Who can beat up who' sports and sports in a circle. This loose framework is the excuse for a series of skits of varying length. Some excellent one-liners and plays on words jostle with more extended riffs on golf, American football and bull fighting (general consensus: cruel and unusual). The whole is also (again, loosely) tied together with links aping the slightly-too-loud, strangely-intoned sportscasters employed by the likes of ESPN.
And here is one major drawback, and reason the show—generated for an American audience, lest we forget—is not yet as satisfying as earlier Reductions. The UK and the US are, famously, two nations divided by a common language, and here is a classic example. It's not that we're not aware of tropes of American sportscasting (they're familiar, second-hand, from the likes of The Simpsons if nothing else). And names such as Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant are on the radar—just about—even for those among us who don't follow baseball or basketball. But English audiences are simply not steeped in the same memes as American ones, and though the show's writer / performers Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have incorporated one or two British references, they feel somewhat tokenistic and tentative at present.
Likewise, it's not that we don't 'get' sketches such as the one in which the abstruse language and macho posturing of American Football is shown to be (sexually) ambiguous at best; it's just that we are not encultured with the background assumption that American Football is the pinnacle of manliness as, I suppose, the majority of the American public is. And a sequence debating the merits (and / or soporific effects) of baseball could be easily translated (and as such prove much closer to home) if it were transposed to cricket.
This criticism is all tempered, however, by the performers' clear abilities to respond to particular audiences, which will doubtless enable them to hone the material over the coming weeks and assess which gags and sketches simply will not go over to a British audience. Sequences which work much better include a sports broadcast from the early 17th century, in which Tichenor is clearly on happy territory riffing on Shakespearean heroes and heroines. And the troupe's improvisatory (or semi-staged improvisatory) talents come to the fore when they halt the show to complain about how badly a particular gag had been received. Coming in the middle of a lukewarm sketch based around an American Football pep talk huddle (again, territory which is only obliquely familiar to UK audiences), the 'interruption' in fact served as a shot in the arm for the show, as his colleagues ribbed Tichenor about losing the plot. Like the best moments of panto, whether or not this was genuinely improvised, it showed the performers at their most likeable—more of this will go down well.
In fact, I would not be surprised if the performance which goes up in the West End in a month's time is a substantially altered one—though the Olympics-based and audience participation material which brings the show to a climax will have even greater weight by then, and be all the more joyous for its perfect timing.
Tour dates available at www.reducedshakespeare.com