Oddsocks double bill at Derby Theatre

Oberon and PuckThree foot plastic owls, blue wigs, false hands, swords, a dish with a hole – when it comes to bizarre shopping lists Elli Mackenzie’s have to be the cat’s pajamas.

The reason for the oddities on her scrap of paper is that she is always on the look out for props for the next production by Oddsocks, a Derby-based touring Shakespeare company.

Elli and her husband Andy Barrow, who formed the company 25 years ago, take epic classic texts and transform them into humorous, vibrant feel-good family shows.

They don’t exactly produce them on a shoestring but as Elli readily points out they are not the RSC and they strive to keep costs down by being exceptionally creative with the sets and props, which is where the unusual shopping list comes in.

“There is always something I am on the look out for. We have a small cast and often use sponge dummies to supplement some of the extra characters, so I would say finding false hands for the dummies is one of my biggest challenges,” she says with a laugh.

Although the style of the shows is irreverent it is respectful to the text as the idea is to make Shakespeare and other classics accessible to everyone but remain true to the original.

“We want to be entertaining but at the same time enlightening and educating,” explained Elli.

Oddsocks tours across the country twice a year to castles, stately homes and parks in the summer and theatres and art centres in the winter.

To celebrate their 25th anniversary they are performing a double bill of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night at Derby Theatre from July 17-19.

Elli (producer) and Andy (director) met while they were training to be actors. As a couple they later added clowning and writing skills to the classical acting they had been taught and then, using an idea first mooted at college, they set about producing 30-minute Shakespeare.

“A concept used while we were training was for everyone to choose a Shakespearean character and then produce a short show. We developed that as an idea and came up with the Bard’s Best Bits, which were two-handed half-hour Shakespeare productions.

“They were really well received and English Heritage even commissioned us for shows at their sites across the country which was fantastic.

“In 1993 it was going so well that we decided to embark on our first full scale summer tour with a larger cast.

“We just thought ‘we can do this’ and got on with it. Since then we have never looked back.”

The Londoners were tempted to Derbyshire in the early days of their company while they were working for Amber Valley Borough Council on an arts project.

“We said we were looking for a base outside the capital and the arts development officer offered us a space.

“They hadn’t got a resident theatre company and we fitted the bill,” said Elli.

It wasn’t exactly a glamorous location as they were housed in a former wheelie bin shed at Somercotes, known as The Depot, but they made the most of it and stayed for several years until they relocated to an old slaughterhouse in Lodge Lane, Derby.

“We took the S off the name and called it the Laughter House,” said Elli grinning.

More recently they have started using Derby Theatre’s rehearsal rooms as a base, which Elli says works out perfectly for them and the actors they employ for the tours.

“It gives us a much better space to work with. Before we used to be quite cramped for rehearsals and when it came to the actual performance we would have to remember to spread out a bit more on the stage.”

For Oddsocks, performing in their home town is always important and Elli says they are looking forward to bringing the double bill to the city.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream features magic, fairies, slapstick and some outrageous hunting dogs and Twelfth Night is a madcap musical treat – both perfect for the Oddsocks treatment.

“For us it is about using the country’s most famous dead playwright to reach an audience and stir emotions in a way which only live theatre can do,” said Elli with sincerity.

“Our job is done when people leave in a better mood than when they walked in.”

For more details about Oddsocks and the shows they stage go to their website  http://www.oddsocks.co.uk where you can watch video clips of performances.