Writer: Tamara von Werthern
Director: Lily McLeish
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The publicity for The White Bike claims that the show tells an ordinary story, a terrifyingly ordinary story. With an average of 17 cyclists being killed each year on London’s streets, and with 5 already being killed this year, these deaths have, indeed, become tragically ordinary. Tamara von Werthern’s play at The Space in London’s Docklands explores the life of a 29-year-old cyclist, Isabelle, who is killed in a collision with a heavy goods vehicle, leaving behind a husband and a baby. With a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life we see her move through a city which no longer contains her.
Isabelle, sympathetically played by Josephine Starte, has an ordinary life, and we see key moments of her childhood through flashbacks, and, while the quotidian routine may not make for thrilling theatre, Werthern’s decision to focus on everyday life brings the tragedy home. Things like this can – and do – happen to any of us. Isabelle’s story is inspired by Eilidh Cairns, who was killed by a lorry in 2009. As a memorial a white bike – sometimes called a ghost bike – was placed alongside the road where she died. Since then, white bikes have become sadly too commonplace.
What does raise this story out of the ordinary, however, is the smart production, which integrates dance into the traditional storytelling. Isabelle is never alone on the enclosed stage as the four other cast members scuttle around her as she cycles to work, or join her in a rousing rave when her 15- year-old self goes to a disco for the first time. As well as fellow cyclists, these actors play other roles such as Isabelle’s mother, or husband, Henry (a very effective Christopher Akrill), or the ghosts that haunt a netherworld she’s not quite sure she’s entered. Movement director Simon Pittman ensures that these actors are hardly ever still.
The striking lighting design is by Dan Saggars, who did good work in Carry on Jaywick at the Vault Festival earlier this year. Some scenes are lit only by torchlight and, in other scenes, the sense of movement and speed is conveyed by the flashes of portable fluorescent tubes. Chillingly, one single lamp illuminates the severed handlebars of Isabelle’s bike.
These lights and the physicality of the actors give life to an otherwise thin and familiar story. Towards the end of its 75-minute running time, The White Bike does lose some of its momentum, especially in Isabelle’s monologues. The tone falters as protests calling for greater safety on our roads are turned into lullabies. With a little more anger, this play would shine brighter.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Tommy Cha