The Odyssey, Old Vic, Bristol

A comedy of epic proportions
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The Independent Culture

There are five alarming minutes at the beginning of the Bristol Old Vic's new production of The Odyssey in which two stroppy immigration officers give Odysseus a punch in the kidneys when he tells them: "I am from sun-kissed Ithaca." You sit there with a sinking heart, wondering why Homer has been frog-marched into the suburbs of Pinter-land as the sinister goons give their shipwrecked captive some grievous bodily sarcasm.

There are five alarming minutes at the beginning of the Bristol Old Vic's new production of The Odyssey in which two stroppy immigration officers give Odysseus a punch in the kidneys when he tells them: "I am from sun-kissed Ithaca." You sit there with a sinking heart, wondering why Homer has been frog-marched into the suburbs of Pinter-land as the sinister goons give their shipwrecked captive some grievous bodily sarcasm.

Actually, the device pans out nicely. David Farr, a naturally funny writer, uses this "official" debriefing as a way of getting Odysseus' story told in a much lighter vein. What follows is a fresh, dotty and compelling staging of the ancient epic. It's an Odyssey, moreover, completely free of poetical pomposity and Ted Hughes.

For this adaptation (which Farr directs), the Old Vic's tiny Georgian auditorium has been ingeniously turned by Angela Davies, the designer, into a battered ship. The stalls seats are decked over, so the small cast, in effect, works in the round, playing to the boxes, dress circle and a bank of raked seats on the stage. The various scenes are enacted around the metal mast as Odysseus - the excellent Robert Bowman - and his men encounter various perils en route for home.

There is no shortage of laughs as the cartoonish episodes unfold. Indeed, the whole thing is rather more Homer Simpson than Homer of Chios. After their lotus-eating, for example, the sailors return to ship as stoned hippies from the Summer of Love, telling their captain: "You can't shackle our minds, man." This and the crew's escape from the Cyclops's cave disguised as sheep play beautifully - the multiracial cast doubling up as gods, animals and men. And who could resist Circe - the wonderfully voluptuous Mia Soteriou - who turns the sailors into pigs and has the cast leaping about in their Y-fronts, the dirty swine?

But it is not all in the key of comedy. When the crew row like fury from the Sirens' song, Odysseus, lashed to the mast, lets rip a silent yell of agonised desire. It's an astonishingly effective sequence. So, too, is the hero's descent into the halls of Hades, where he meets the masked dead, including his own dead mother, who fast-forwards the future to reveal his reunion with his wife, Penelope (Agni Tsangaridou).

A little puppetry goes a long way, but in this case the re-telling of the sack of Troy manages to convey the war crimes that dog Odysseus, whose search for home is a fruitless search for inner peace. Even the immigration officials, called Roger and Harold, have their moment: Colin Mace (superb throughout) and Stuart McLoughlin, respectively, get to do a little music-hall number, which comes out of the blue and contrasts nicely with the earnest twangs and plings of Stu Barker's ethnic music.

It's not Homer as you might expect, but it's constantly diverting and staged with a mad abandon. A winner for a family outing, it's a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where it arrives after visiting the Liverpool Everyman.

To 12 March (0117-987 7877)

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