Playwright/director James Ley first gained some attention as a co-producer and writer of Leith-based The Village Pub Theatre, which provided performing space to a fresh band of actors, directors and writers. Learning his trade in an environment where humour and brevity were generally preferable, it was hardly surprising when Ley’s first major work,
“Show, don't tell” isn’t actually always the best way to push a story forward.
So it is with Ode to Joy which, as its subtitle rather gives away, explains how uptight late-20s Gordon – for whom any variety of sex has “never been a big part of [his] life” – decides he needs to change and (with some chemical assistance) become “Pig Gordon” at the world’s biggest and most iconic sex party—which is held every year within a former Berlin power station. Given the minimal staging — a few costumes on a rack at the back of Summerhall’s Demonstration theatre, a couple of circles chalked on the floor – this production relies on its four performers.
Thankfully, they’re more than up to the task, proving that “show, don't tell” isn’t actually always the best way to push a story forward. Much of our attention is, of course, focused on Brian Evans as the titular Gordon—a minor legal officer in the Scottish Government, who’s happy to have learned so much on an LGBTQ working group, but is at least sufficiently aware that it’s not exactly experiencing the real thing. Evans gives Gordon the precise degree of rigid-armed, iPad-holding nervousness required to balance his otherwise wide-eyed, genuine likability; we can’t help but love him.
There are, however, several moments when Marc MacKinnon essentially “borrows” the show as “Manpussy” (aka Tom) who – barred from the night club for not wearing “sporty” clothes, appears as the show’s Narrator—indicating, from early on, that the comedy here isn’t just dirty and outrageous, but meta. Manpussy may be miffed at being given the role, but the most outrageous narrator ever seen outside of a pantomime is equally upset if anyone tries to take it from him: “Do not manipulate them,” he says at one point, referring to his appreciative audience. “That’s my job.”
Manpussy’s partner, meantime, is the apparently aptly-named Cumpig (also known as Marcus), who is both horrified and knocked sideways by Gordon’s innocence, and is the one to tell the newbie that he “can be anyone [he] wants”. He’s also a fair hand at Shakespearian emails – complete with emojis – which help push Gordon unexpectedly towards his dream party. And talking of party, the fourth – unspeaking – performer is Simon “Simonotron” Eilbeck, who is mixing an unmissable beat from the moment the audience starts to make its way into the venue, contributing a deeply-felt aural aspect to the show’s imagined world.
Ode to Joy is about friendship, love and, yes, having fun along the way. Only one thing lets it down; a cack-handed, out-of-the-blue comparison of Gordon’s self-realisation on the dance-floor with an independence-winning Scotland that’s once again part of the European Union by 2029. I can just about ignore the hubris in Gordon’s declaration of a sex club as the true heart of Europe; but not the unsubtlety.