For some playwrights, areas and towns that have a special significance to them turn up time and time again in their work: for Willy Russell it’s Liverpool, for Arnold Wesker it was the East End and for Andrew Maddock it’s North Wembley. His latest play, Olympilads, focuses on three siblings who live there in 2012 – all adults, but for one reason or another continue to have strained relationships.
Darren Stapleton (Nebiu Samuel) lives for running. He gets up to do this at 5am and thinks that he has the potential to beat Usain Bolt. Darren also lives with his older brother Simeon (Rhys Yates) who has just had a promotion at work. Even so, Simeon finds it hard to keep up with Darren’s demands for a new pair of trainers every month, supposedly because he wears out the soles of his footwear so quickly. When he doesn’t get his own way, Darren is prone to severe tantrums, which has soured Simeon’s relationship with his girlfriend and the reason their sister Abigail (Michelle Barwood) has stayed away from them – until now. Acting as the go-between Abigail and Darren, Simeon tries to bring them together so that they can learn to patch up their differences. But past grievances are far from forgotten, leading to an explosive reunion…
Maddock packs a lot into Olympilads, the detail-rich script effortlessly fleshing out the dynamics within a family with deep-rooted issues. To some degree their parents have directly or indirectly affected the way the Stapletons siblings have developed over time. No mention is made of the mother being around, but it’s hinted that the father when he was alive spent most of the time and money on Darren at the detriment of his own health. Dealing with the pressing, day-to-day stuff like finding money to pay the bailiffs became out of necessity the responsibility of Simeon and Abigail.
The ‘elephant in the room’ that the play acknowledges is how being a half-sibling can affect relationships. While it is more common nowadays for parents to divorce, remarry and start new families, it doesn’t make it any easier for the children who have to work through their issues of identity and belonging. It’s hinted at in the play that the father had ‘played around’ years before and that it’s possible that Darren is the result of an affair. Is he reason Abigail and Simeon’s mother isn’t there anymore? Who knows. But it certainly explains Abigail’s wariness of Darren, even before he started hurling objects at her. While Simeon makes no distinctions between his siblings, Abigail makes a point singling out Darren as their half-brother – the emotional inference being if he had the same mother, he wouldn’t be so self-centred and do the things he does…
Director Niall Phillips, who also worked on Maddock’s He(art) has a flair for getting under the skin of families, and the Stapletons are as real a family as you can get. The arguments, the verbal abuse, the blows – this isn’t a family that shuts off its emotions. They are all people who feel things deeply and have their reasons for behaving the way that they do.
It’s not easy playing a character whose single-minded sometimes obscures his empathy for others, but beneath the bluster, Samuel’s mannerisms suggest a deeper reason for Darren’s intractable nature. Certainly the character’s actions bears all the hallmarks of Asperger’s and the play’s denouement gives an understandable reason why Darren feels he should continue to run as if ‘his’ life depended on it.
One of the strongest elements of Olympilads is the relationship between Abigail and Simeon, and it’s refreshing to see a play where a brother-sister relationship emotionally drives the play. There’s a palpable chemistry between Barwood and Yates, the teasing and concern that they show each other a reminder of all that is best about families – as well as the carte blanche assumption there is freedom to speak ‘home truths’… Barwood’s chemistry with Samuel is even more intense, leading to the play’s ‘heart in mouth’ moments.
While Abigail is a devoted mother and caring sister, she is far from being an appendage to other family members. We see how she’s put down roots elsewhere and in one of the play’s most touching moments, delivers a speech about love – not the romantic variety but the sort that perseveres through daily adversity. It’s a message that’s just as applicable to families as to significant others and in many ways encapsulates the themes of the play.
Bearing in mind that Darren put his ‘needs’ above everyone else’s, should Simeon continue to ‘be his brother’s keeper’ or should he, like Darren, put his own happiness first? In life, you can’t run somebody else’s race for them…
© Michael Davis 2017
Olympilads runs at Theatre N16, Balha, London until 26th August.