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The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot

Nancy Harris
Unicorn Theatre

Mark Monero as Philoctetes Credit: Geraint Lewis
Alexis Rodney as Odysseus and Alex Austin as Neoptolemus Credit: Geraint Lewis
Kanga Tanikye-Buah and Mercy Ojelade as The Seashells Credit: Geraint Lewis

The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot is based on Sophocles Philoctetes, the story of the man the Greek army on its way to Troy dumped on a then-uninhabited Lemnos. He'd been bitten by a snake and his foot festered into a stinking wound. His comrades couldn't stand the smell and his screams of pain. The wily Odysseus tricked him and left him asleep while the rest of them sailed off leaving him abandoned.

Now nine years later, the war at a stalemate, the Greeks have been told that to win they need Philoctetes' bow which sends its arrows magically always on target. Odysseus is back on Lemnos to get it. Not straightforwardly of course. He's brought dead hero Achilles' son Neoptolemus along to do his dirty work.

Nancy Harris's version sticks closely to Sophocles, though dropping the chorus and the appearance of Heracles as a deus ex machina; it is Neoptolemus' integrity and friendship alone that influence Philoctetes final decision. She introduces a pair of talking seashells as spirits of the islands which add a touch of humour. In shimmering pink dresses, one is glamorously turned out with outsize pearls in her hair the other less so with just a starfish. Kanga Tanikye-Buah and Mercy Ojelade make them a sassy double act.

The look is contemporary: designer Signe Beckmann puts the soldiers in desert combat gear, Philoctetes' cave is a plastic-walled shack on a beach deep in sand, its territory marked out by a line of flotsam and a washing line hung with is still smelly socks and wound dressings. When they come ashore Alexis Rodney's intimidating Odysseus has buoyancy bands on his arms, Alex Austin's skinny Neoptolemus drags in a plastic dinghy and they are both wearing flippers.

Odysseus says is name means ‘the one who hates' but says its more accurate to call him cunning and he gets Neoptolemus really worried by is picture of a frightening Philoctetes whose roars of pain we can already hear. Rodney gives an unscrupulous general who is very persuasive in pressing necessity over moralistic scruples when the object is victory and glory. Austin gives the inexperienced youngster an appealing naivety, bound by duty but seeing honour in honesty.

The core of the play lies in the encounter between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes as the trembling young man faces what he thinks is a monster. From comic terror we move on to a delightful invention when the seashells suggest that the young man give his new friend a gift. He has nothing to give but they say imagine it, which he at first can't get his head round, unlike the marooned man who has spent nine years imagining all those things he can't have on his island from ice creams and hamburgers to racing around the island on a motor bike.

This Philoctetes is the most likeable of guys and the stink seems to be bearable until the wrapping comes off his wound. Even if he weren't so wronged the warm, rich-voiced way Mark Monero plays him would put the audience on his side; his bitterness and anger perhaps should be more evident, though he would never vent them on those whom he believes his friends

Director Ellen McDougall has drawn good performances from all her cast in a production that keeps you never certain which way things will go. With sound and lighting bathing this beach in sunshine, the sound of gentle waves and discrete snatches of music and the friendly seashells this doesn't seem such a bad place even without fruit trifle at teatime but, as it points its morals about honesty and caring, this production also makes clear how much people need the companionship of other people.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton