Nigel Kneale’s 1968 play, The Year of the Sex Olympics, has been re-staged as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. Set in a world where there are the hi-drives, the media elite who control the lo-drives, with a diet of lowest common denominator and pornographic programmes. The whole idea being – you see it, you don’t do it. As a way of controlling population explosion and disorder, it is effective. But when producer Kin Hodder starts to transmit images designed to provoke horror and revulsion – feelings from the ‘old times’, things start to spiral out of control.. until Nat Mender offers to provide the entertainment for a new show featuring ordinary lives on a remote island..
Kneale developed his script for this play from his absorption of Orwellian ideals from his adaptation of 1984. The obsession with ratings and audience appreciation indexes, is one, that in the multi-channel age has become even more relevant as programmes get simpler and simpler to appeal to as many people as possible and boost ratings. Obviously the advent of Big Brother, and the 2000 BBC series Castaway have parallels with what happens in Sex Olympics – Mender and Webb’s decision to move away from the output and fend for themselves on a remote Scottish island being worryingly prophetic. But of course, The Year of the Sex Olympics is more than a swipe at reality television, it also riffs of concerns over population increase, violence, suppression of ideas and people and the control of the media. A highly innovative, and sadly forgotten piece.
Where the original was all about gaudy sets and costumes (though sadly unavailable to see because the colour master wipes were wiped), the Scytheplays production instead costumes its players in garb more fitting to just a few years into the future, giving the impression that this could all be just around the corner.
Reuniting many of the cast of The Ballad of Halo Jones, each has their strengths, but all work terrifically together as an ensemble piece. Louise Hamer continues to prove herself as an engaging and confident actress – her character Misch appealing to the audience as the presenter of Sportsex. Alastair Gillies and Benjamin Patterson give us a humourous double act as Nat Mender and Lasar Opie respectively. Gillies’ Mender able to show a completely different side to his character in the second half of the play whilst Patterson’s Opie moves from genial to manipulative very smoothly. Howard Whittock gives a solid performance as Coordinator Priest and turns a fairly exposition heavy part into a more rounded and three-dimensional character. Claire Dean also gives a calm and cool performance as Dini, and also gets the chance to flex her acting muscles in the second half of the play.
Will Hutchby gives a manic and energetic performance as protestor Kin Hodder, whilst Michelle Ashton belies her age with an astonishing performance as the young Keten Webb. Phil Dennison completely steals the show as the mysterious Grells – testament to Dennison, he takes a fairly one dimensional part and turns it into a far deeper portrayal. Elsewhere, Leni Murphy proves her adaptability as she easily switches between four very different roles in the production from the savage Betty through to the prim and proper Executive.
The use of lighting to shift between the hi-drives and later Mender and his family on the island is innovative, and works very well. The set of actors not lit has to continue acting whilst the audience focus is on the ‘lit’ actors. Hamer and Patterson particularly give the impression of the hi-drives salivating – on the edge of their seats for what will happen next.
There are a number of nice subtleties in how this society is portrayed. Dean, Gillies and Ashton appear to have worked hard to highlight the subtleties of touch. Their characters seem to be reluctant to touch each other, or their daughter for support. It seems to reflect the success of the Apathy Control even amongst the hi-drives of this society. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, I don’t know. But certainly when on the island in The Live Live Show, Mender and Webb rely on each other more than they have ever had to, which in turn manifests itself in embraces and kisses – a nice subtle tonal shift.
A grim and frightening vision of a future where audience entertainment is used as pacification, it is an idea that has been done before and since, notably there will be comparisons to The Hunger Games. However, Year of the Sex Olympics is a slick and tense chance to see one of the original stories based on this theme. Combining the ideals of Burgess and Orwell along with mashing up a reality- television based future (which has, obviously become true), Kneale proves to have been a visionary of his time. Thackeray and Kelly have assembled a fine cast who do justice to this innovative and enlightening piece which fits in perfectly with the ideals of the Manchester Fringe.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Year of the Sex Olympics four strokes out of five:
The Year of the Sex Olympics is on at the Lass O’Gowrie from July 13th to July 15th and also on the last night of the fringe, July 31st. Tickets are available through www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk