Writer: Phil Porter
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
We are increasingly encountering groups of cyclists on our roads at weekends. Already a hugely popular sport and pastime on the Continent, the sport is growing in popularity here. Rarely out of the news the sport has attracted our admiration for its heroes like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Frome, and our admonishment at its villains, like Lance Armstrong.
But what is it that turns a pleasant healthy exercise into a gruelling personal challenge? What makes those enthusiasms turns into compulsive addictions, taking bodies to such an extreme that we witness the likes of Chris Hoy in practise pushing himself so much that he is forced to come off his bike to throw up?
Phil Porter’s new play, The Man with the Hammer, touches on the roots and causes that turn cycling enthusiasts into obsessives. Told through the eyes of Jodie, a schoolgirl given a bike by her father to avoid walking to and from school. Jodie, whose mum died when she was 12, lives with her father, Tony, who increasingly struggles to bridge the widening gap in his relationship with his teenage daughter as she grows up. Jodie meets up with professional cyclist Noah at a race. Noah coaches her to overcome some of the hurdles to succeed in cycling, and a relationship starts to form.
The three actors cycle their way through this play. Literally. The three are on their bikes before the audience even enters to take their seats, cycling continuously side by side towards us. Flicking and changing gears, accelerating and changing pace throughout, they deliver their stories in this short play. Jodie, played by newcomer Harriet Slater, finds herself hooked in her new pastime and pleasantly hooked on the company of pro Noah, played by Jonny Holden. Dad, Tony, played by Tim Chipping, clumsily negotiates the balance of how much to share with his daughter and when to recognise he is not wanted.
All three actors put in flawless performances. Phil Porter’s well written, witty and touching dialogue produces some charming and heart reaking moments. Despite continuously cycling and staying on their bikes, the three actor’s inventiveness and Justin Audibert’s deft direction manage to play scenes from their stories with whatever else they have at their disposal – glances, facial expressions, pauses, silences and shrugs.
Full credit needs to be given to the technical aspects of this production. Georgia Lowe’s set is a simple raised black platform, to become the road, on which the three bikes are mounted, run on rollers, concealed just beneath the stage platform. What might have been an incredibly static production is lifted by Martin Ward’s crucial music and sound support – producing inspiring musical themes on the one hand and throbbing heartbeats hint at imminent tragedy on the other. Lighting, by Andy Purves, was also crucial. The platform is lit from above by rows of thin tubular panels producing stark white light which intensify the action and, at times, suggesting a laboratory or even torture chamber – which is clearly what the cyclist goes through as they push the boundaries of what a body can achieve.
Porter touches on the physical and psychological highs that cyclists experience which might help to explain why they push their bodies to such unnatural extents The naturally stimulated morphine, dopamine and adrenalin rushes which keep the rider addicted; the strive to maximise the power of the bike by finding the perfect balance between the bike’s technological capacity and the body’s ability; the rider’s efforts to detach mind from matter and compartmentalise the joy from the pain; the sense of triumph of a victory or after achieving a mountain climb; are all imaginatively conveyed to the audience. Much as long distance runners and joggers describe getting in to a ‘zone’ where the pain is externalised and there is just the feeling of ‘being’, Porter echoes the cycling enthusiast’s temptation to express these feelings in spiritual or religious terms. All these experiences Noah passes on to the young Jodie. Flattered by the attention, and caught up in the intimacy of the relationship, Noah becomes a hero to the young girl. Tony is not so impressed.
Despite the superb acting, technical delivery and script, this play felt slightly unsatisfying at the end. The investigation of what makes enthusiasts become obsessives, who may even turn into cheats, was imaginatively conveyed and intriguing. The backstory between father and daughter, although tenderly expressed, was well-trodden ground. Despite the relentless pedalling on stage, after 75 minutes, it seemed that the limits of the static staging could no longer be avoided.
Runs until: 26 March 2016 | Image: Steve Tanner