Fair Play – Bush Theatre, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: Ella Road

Director:  Monique Touko

Probably the last time we saw runners’ feet pounding on a London stage it was Chariots of Fire, a tale of courage and religious dedication. One character faces the problem of having to run on a Sunday; another experiences anti-Semitism at Cambridge University. No one questions their right to compete as men.

Ella Road loves a hard problem. In The Phlebotomist she considered a society which discriminates on the basis of health ratings. Now she shifts her focus to a real-life situation where medical testing can destroy a career, and a young person’s health can be compromised for the sake of success.

Fair Play is a series of short episodes, punctuated by uncomfortably loud beeps and flashing lights – an impression of the stresses athletes are subjected to. It’s not always easy to tell where the characters are – a place name may be mentioned quickly, but the scene is always a running track. Sometimes, a character seems to be a mouthpiece for an issue, as when one points out that most runners disqualified for ‘abnormal’ testosterone are African.

In a two-person play it’s difficult to see how this could be conveyed more economically, however, and most of the time Road’s dialogue is compelling. She is an expert at dissecting a conversation, laying bare the minute shifts that move a relationship on. The two women meet as girls. Sophie, the experienced athlete, is self-consciously brusque; Ann is reticent but articulate. Gradually, they exchange ideas and confidences. They both use ‘literally’ a lot. The play is well-paced, with enough hints being dropped to encourage a feeling of foreboding without destroying the impact of the climax, when it finally comes.

Monique Touko, the director, keeps up the adrenalin, using the whole stage and constant action. Joseph Toonga and Orin Norbert must be ferocious movement directors; the actors are always running or exercising. Both actors seem made for their roles. As young Sophie, a single-minded runner with no natural social skills, Charlotte Beaumont has an awkward, chilly smile and an over-loud, squealy voice. As the friendship progresses, she develops a steadier tone and allows the mask to fall. By the end she has become a sympathetically honest character and her dismaying revelation is painful to watch.

NicK King, plays Ann, who begins as the outsider, the immigrant, from a much less privileged background – her mother is a care worker, while Sophie’s always has ‘blueberries in the fridge’. King gives young Ann a ready smile and warmth, tempered with unflagging determination to win. Mature Ann has steely dignity, meeting Sophie’s apology without accepting it.  ‘That’s cleared the air for you’, she says, ‘but it’s still murky over here’.

Naomi Dawson’s set is deceptively simple – a red carpet marked with white track lines, and a couple of metal exercise frames, reflecting the scenery of an athlete’s life. At the end, with lighting by Matt Haskins and sound by Giles Thomas, it becomes, convincingly, a street in Hounslow.

The play raises several important questions about fairness in women’s sport – as well as hormone testing, it looks at inequalities of opportunity and permanent physical damage. Perhaps Ann’s disapproving father should not have the last word, but his pronouncement unfortunately applies to every human: ‘Your body is not a sustainable career choice.’

Runs until 22 January 2022

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