Oddsocks: making Shakespeare “enormous fun”

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Many people who struggled with Shakespeare at school must laugh when they see Oddsocks’ website. And that’s exactly what the Derbyshire theatre company wants its audiences to do.

A quote from a four-star review sits on the front page of the Oddsocks website proclaiming that it makes Shakespeare “such enormous fun”.

There’s also the declaration that Oddsocks is “one of the UK’s best-loved touring theatre companies” serving up “entertaining, bold and adventurous adaptations of Shakespeare and classic stories”.

That’s pretty impressive for a family-run business which survived the devastating effects of Covid-19 and is now preparing for a full-scale tour in 2023.

Coronavirus meant Oddsocks had to perform online. Amazingly thousands of people around the world tuned in to see its work. But without any government funding, the company decided to be in greater control of its own destiny – by buying an old chapel which came with its own rehearsal space.

Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie of Oddsocks

Husband and wife Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie set up Oddsocks – the name stems from the odds and ends they used to do – in 1989. They’d met at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

They combined their classical acting skills with clowning techniques and by 1993 the different style of theatre they produced was so popular that they arranged their first summer tour. Since then they’ve taken two shows on the road most years.

Artistic director Andy and creative producer Elli describe the challenges they’ve faced over the past decade. A typical married couple – they have been together 38 years and wed in 2002 – they often finish each other’s sentences as they talk with passion and dedication about their unusual life.

Elli explains that about ten years ago they faced a crossroads: “We started to realise the challenge facing us was there were a lot of companies starting out doing work that undercut us.

“They were fresh out of uni or drama school and there were a lot of people who were doing what we were doing but on a much smaller scale and therefore charging less.”

Andy Barrow in the Stay Home Shakespeare production of Macbeth

Andy jumps in: “It was either a race to the bottom or invest, set ourselves apart and be a quality act . . .”

“. . . and produce something which people would find hard to copy,” says Elli.

That involved altering Shakespeare plays by taking out some of the text and replacing it with recognisable songs. Again, it proved a hit.

“It was just getting to the point in 2019 where we were having another revelation and saying for various reasons this just doesn’t seem right any more, how do we change? And then the pandemic hit and decided it for us,” says Elli.

“Six months of the year we were effectively on the road and six months of the year we were preparing to be on the road or recovering from being on the road!” laughs Andy.

“Suddenly in 2020 you couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t work. So there was the initial fear of how do we pay the mortgage? How do we exist?”

Oddsocks started by putting some of its old productions onto YouTube before hitting on Stay Home Shakespeare, live-streaming Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear with only three or four actors. They roped in their children, 25-year-old Felix who’s a musician and Charlie, 21, who works in the creative industries, to take part both behind and in front of the camera.

“It was a hugely exciting thing to do. We had 3,000 people across the world watching Macbeth live from our little house in Darley Abbey which was quite daunting.”

“It came at exactly the right time,” says Elli. “People had got over the novelty of not having to go to work and being at home to the point where they were saying ‘this is a bit dull, now’.

“It was a hugely exciting thing to do. We had 3,000 people across the world watching Macbeth live from our little house in Darley Abbey which was quite daunting.”

She admits that technically it was demanding because Oddsocks used the talents of two people who’d worked with the company as actors before they diversified. Key Ramsorrun mixed and edited everything live from Ramsgate while Kevin Kemp looked after the streaming from Los Angeles.

That kept Oddsocks going for three months before the company returned to outdoor productions with socially distanced performances for Derby LIVE.

But the prospects of facing another lockdown loomed large. Touring looked impossible and applications for funding were turned down.

Oddsocks’ production of Hamlet the Comedy

Andy outlines the decisions they had to make: “We thought that at some point we were going to run out of money to pay our mortgage, so we had to get another loan and load ourselves up or maybe sell the house.

“The house market was going up and up. We thought we could sell our house in Darley Abbey so we worked out what we could pay and started looking around. It was quite depressing.”

Eventually Andy and Elli came across Chapel House, built in 1671 at Upper Lea near Matlock and perfect for preparing Oddsocks’ shows. They successfully bid for it at auction.

They rehearsed their next show at Chapel House and were able to stage half a dozen performances – but then that was cancelled at the last minute,” laments Andy.

After that they had to get Chapel House ready to live in. “It was freezing cold, damp, dark and it was an adventure,” he recalls and relates how they came to know their neighbours who they’d not been able to get to know because of the pandemic.

The vibe from the audience was amazing. People were so pleased to be out and doing things safely in the open air and seeing familiar faces.”

“A delivery driver tried to turn round in our garden and ended up slipping. So the neighbours came over and saw what was going on. We said hello and ended up towing him out with a Land Rover.

“Normally we’d be seeing people all the time. It took a while to actually meet people in the area.”

Last year Oddsocks was able to mount its first full summer tour since lockdown, The Comedy of Errors, returning to many of its usual venues including a ten-day stint at Coronation Park in Jersey.

“We did the last performance down the road in the village as a sort of ‘hello, this is us’, says Andy. “It was quite useful. By then people were more relaxed and Covid had died down a lot.”

“The vibe from the audience was amazing,” adds Elli. “People were so pleased to be out and doing things safely in the open air and seeing familiar faces.”

Marley and Scrooge in an Oddsocks’ production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Both admit that running their company gets more challenging. “It seems you have to work harder and do a little more just to stay still,” says Andy.

“The nature of the business has changed hugely,” remarks Elli. “Once upon a time our main focus was creating the productions and building the sets. Now the amount of time we spend marketing what we do is huge. The balance has tipped in terms of the administration.”

After a successful tour earlier this year with Hamlet the Comedy, Oddsocks is preparing for a busy future. Elli is organising this year’s Christmas entertainment at Chatsworth while Andy is to direct a community play which is being written by Belper playwright Kevin Fegan. The company is also looking to book up next summer’s tour which is likely to be Much Ado About Nothing.

After more than 30 years in the business, do they ever feel like giving up? Elli sometimes thinks there must be an easier way to make a living but it might not be as fulfilling.

“The upsides of working the way that we do outweigh the downsides. But there’ve been plenty of times when I’ve thought I just want to be in a soap.”

“We don’t know what’s going to happen but we do know we have to adapt to survive.”

Andy who’s worked in television but didn’t particularly enjoy it is more pragmatic.

“Everybody has days when they wish it was easier – we’re no different in that respect. But I don’t think we’ll change anything.

“It would be nice to be in a country that was a little bit more positive about the arts. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we do know we have to adapt to survive.”

Andy and Elli have shown that they have the resilience, flexibility and versatility to survive in the occasionally cruel world of showbiz. And that’s no laughing matter.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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