This is an ambitious project from Bard and Troubadour’s Joshua Crisp: telling the complete myth of the Labours of Hercules, together with a fair chunk of the convoluted back-story, all on his own and within the space of an hour. Time checks from the tech box keep the mission on track, as Crisp gallops through the famed Ancient Greek legend – ticking off Hercules’ impossible feats with engaging humour and, more often than not, an ironic laugh.
The core conceit – that we’re rushing through the story at breakneck speed – works well, offering Crisp the perfect excuse to skip over some of the less rewarding parts of the legends. The sundry characters could be evoked with clearer physicality, but I enjoyed the comic depiction of King Eurystheus, incompetently evil and hiding in a pot. The sharp observation on the role of King Minos is entertaining too, and paves the way to casting him as a Bond villain – a comforting reference point amidst what is, inevitably, a pretty out-there storyline.
But it’s all very one-note. On the few occasions when Crisp does vary the tone – the sad scene when Hercules parts with Hippolyta, for example – it’s a shot in the arm for the storytelling, and heightens our anticipation for the humour that’s still to come. But on the whole, he’s resolutely light-hearted and self-consciously down-with-the-kids, a little like a trendy RE teacher who’s trying too hard to be cool. And while the story might be a legend, the presentation is less than epic; there’s only a certain number of times you can say “And he goes, ‘waaah’!” before it all begins to feel just a tiny bit inane.
Overall, I felt that Hercules hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be. If it’s meant for kids, then Crisp should cut some gratuitous swearing, while if it’s intended for grown-ups then the storytelling style could be more mature too. If it’s a comedy, then there’s a lot of potential humour there which wasn’t really sold; while if it’s a genuine attempt to explain the legend, then it’s undermined by an almost dismissive approach to the source material. Don’t get me wrong – it’s entirely possible to be irreverent and informative at the same time – but this production hasn’t quite found that tone.
There’s a tired national stereotype slipped in there too – a risky move, since you never know where a reviewer might hail from. At the end of the day though, Hercules does do what it’s set out to do: telling a complex story in 60 minutes, and in a way which requires no grounding in Greek mythology to understand. It’s an entertaining hour of fast-paced chatter – and with further development and a tightened focus, also has the potential to grow into something more.