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Theatre review: Theatrical tour-de-force; CULTURE The Penelopiad Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon ****.

Byline: Terry Grimley

The prospect of an internationally renowned novelist reworking Homer's Odyssey from a feminist perspective might suggest you are in for a heavy evening.

But in fact Margaret Atwood's debut as a dramatist is a theatrical souffle. While its underlying critique of testosterone-driven myth is clear-eyed, the surface texture is light and comic. And while it is not immediately obvious from reading the book how the material might adapt to the theatre, its realisation under Josette Bushell-Mingo's direction proves smart and seamless.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus's wife Penelope is a marginal figure but a model of virtue who fends off for ten years the unwanted attentions of numerous suitors as her husband's return from the Trojan Wars is delayed by endless adventures.

Atwood imagines a present-day Penelope in Hades, emerging from a black shroud in a slinky red dress, finally ready after thousands of years to tell her own life story. There is no guarantee, however, that her version is correct.

The point on which it hinges is the shocking murder of her 12 maids by the returned Odysseus - a tragedy explained here by Penelope's failure to tell him that their apparently loose and insolent behaviour has been part of her strategy to keep the suitors at bay.

The all-female cast incorporates the maids as a kind of Greek chorus who, with a series of quick-changes, play all the other parts as well. Musical numbers include one in sailor suits and another with fans which nods in the direction of burlesque and Busby Berkeley.

Sarah Malin is a persuasive Odysseus and I particularly enjoyed Mojisola Adebayo playing Penelope's son Telem-achus as a grumpy teenager. There's a nice joke, too, about Ulysses's parents having evidently spent too much time with the goats on the bleak island of Ithaca.

But it's Penny Downie's commanding performance as Penelope, a supple comic tour-de-force, that holds together this exercise in deflating myth through the mundane light of the everyday.

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes (no interval). Until August 18.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 6, 2007
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