On Friday night Mummy found herself back at VAULT Festival to review RIDE, a new musical by award-winning Welsh theatre-makers Freya Smith and Jack Williams. Mummy has a love-hate relationship with bicycles. She is addicted to spin class but totally terrified of riding the real thing in the proximity of traffic or other humans. So what would she think of a musical about Annie Londonderry, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by bike?
Far from just an account of Annie’s athletic achievements, this classy two-hander is the story of the woman behind the headlines, cleverly told as a portrayal of her pitch for her own newspaper column. The show within a show device is reminiscent of Kander and Ebb’s musicals and works well in this context, allowing us to get a sense of Annie’s journey without the constraint of realism and – most notably – without an actual bike!
Because it’s not really a story about cycling at all. It’s about Annie’s flair for storytelling, her character and motivations, exploring not only why she took on the cycling challenge but why she always feels the need to present a particular version of herself. Early on we get a sense that this brash Bostonian (Amy Parker) knows how to spin a good story, believing that it’s more important to razzle dazzle the audience than focus on facts. She’s tenacious and enterprising, making the most of her surroundings and doing whatever she can to embellish her story.
So we see her rolling across the stage on an office chair as she re-enacts her cycling triumph, jumping into a jacket on a coat-stand to depict the wager that (allegedly) triggered her adventure and even co-opting a secretary into becoming her co-star. Meek Martha (Amelia Gabriel) initially needs a push but is soon pedalling under her own steam, enthusiastically telling the tale in tandem with Annie. And as the drama goes up a gear, Martha finds herself taking over the narrative, giving Annie time to compose herself for the finish line. Both are exceptional in their roles, Gabriel’s timid Martha blossoming into the perfect partner for Parker’s brassy Annie, as she navigates past her hard exterior to reach the woman within.
Ride is a beautifully told story which has real depth, revealing Annie’s pain at losing her brother, her turmoil over leaving behind a young family to embark on her cycling challenge and the fear of exposing her Latvian, Jewish heritage that led to her accepting a sponsor’s request to cycle under the name Londonderry instead of as Annie Kopchovsky. It’s incredibly well-crafted and so polished that it’s hard to believe that it’s a festival show. It’s funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once, with a fantastic score that’s played by a live four piece band (whose enthusiasm for their work is joyful to observe). The perfect show to play on International Women’s Day and a theatrical tour de force from Smith and Williams which deserves the musical theatre equivalent of the yellow jersey and will hopefully cycle onto many more stages after its triumphant VAULT Festival time trial.
RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles, Mittens and Brown Paper Packages (aka all five of my favourite things).
Ride played at VAULT Festival from 3 to 8 March 2020. We received complimentary press tickets for the performance on 6 March.