Ride – Southwark Playhouse Elephant, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Book: Freya Catrin Smith

Music and Lyrics: Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams

Director: Sarah Meadows

The invention of the bicycle, and its popularity with women, was of much concern to men of the day. The sense of independence, along with the outrage at women putting their legs astride such a contraption, was enough to send men into impotent fury.

Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams’s Ride, which arrives at Southwark Playhouse Elephant after a preliminary run at the VAULT Festival and a subsequent full production at Charing Cross Theatre, takes a look at one particular woman who used a bicycle to change her life. Annie Kophcovsky, born in Latvia in 1870 but who emigrated with her family to America as a child, rode around the world on a bicycle after accepting a wager from two wealthy businessmen.

Changing her name to Annie Londonderry in a sponsorship deal and with advertisements sold over her body, Annie’s journey was in many ways the precursor to the relationship between sports and advertising that has pervaded ever since. But Londonderry is much more than just a data point on the chart of capitalist ingress: the woman herself was much more interesting than the most famous line in her biography.

Smith and Williams frame the musical as Liv Andrusier’s Annie being forced to recount her travels to an unseen newspaper editorial board in the hope that they will give her the tabloid column she craves. Already we have the sense that she might be an unreliable narrator, telling tales to people for whom narrative reliability is not necessarily a priority.

Andrusier gives Annie a spiky edge, her broad Bostonian accent peppering a performance that has no time to temper her personality with such fripperies as likability. This does not stop the idolatry of newspaper assistant Martha (Katy Ellis) as she becomes pressed into performing various roles as Annie acts out her travels.

And it is only as that journey gets underway that one comes to accept that Ride is not the straightforward biographical story one may expect. Annie’s fight to be accepted as a woman in a man’s world is one thing, as is coming to terms with celebrity and the sudden onrush – and precipitous disappearance – of public notoriety. But beneath all that is the story of a woman who had many struggles of her own, in an immigrant’s life weighed down by familial grief and antisemitism from others.

Musically, Smith and Williams’s songs – performed with a rocky edge by music director Sam Young and his three-piece band – mirror Annie’s voyage of self-discovery as she gradually opens up to Martha and reveals the woman behind the public face. Andrusier performs that role excellently, moving from ebullient proclamations to introspective heartbreak with ease.

That sense of multiple layers is even more true in the case of Martha, though, with Ellis imbuing each character with their own personality while never forgetting that each is being played by a meek office girl. While the dynamic between the two women plays on the hierarchical structures that keep the women on different levels, no such divide exists between the two actors: this is much Martha’s (and Ellis’s) story as it is of Annie and Andrusier.

Amy Jane Cook’s proscenium set design initially feels a little cramped for the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium, but that leaves room for the occasional surprise that embellishes the storytelling to good effect. Even without that, though, one can imagine being charmed, and transformed, by Annie Londonderry.

As her real-life biographers discovered, and as Martha finds out for herself in the course of the play, the closer you look at Annie’s life, the more what you thought of fact may turn out to be less so. But what remains is truth, and the exploration of that truth is what makes Ride such a gem.

Continues until 12 August 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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