Ride (8 Mar 2020)

I’m regretting my choice of date format. It works for Feb but “Mar” does nothing for me.

Anyway… more theatre, and musical theatre at that!

Preamble

The usual caveat applies of course – any criticism I have should be taken with the shovelful of salt it deserves, as I can’t write, compose, direct, sing, play, or act. In the context of this review, this will be even more pertinent than usual, not because there is much criticism (spoiler alert: I loved it) but because the sheer talent of the people involved blew me away.

The entirety of this review will contain spoilers. If that’s an issue for you, you’re safe until the end of the “Cast” section.

Given my obscurity, this seems an incredibly grandiose statement, but just to let you know that the reason I heard of and went to see Ride is that I heard of it through Facebook. Lovely best friend Rose’s brother in law was the “movement director” (a term as comprehensible to me as “management consultant,” but I think it translates as “choreographer but make it fashion”) and one of the writers of Ride I have met a couple of times before and am friends with on Facebook.

I hope (but you know, I don’t care that much) that you understand that this would not compromise my review. I HAVE THE UTMOST INTEGRITY. In fact, I’d be far more comfortable writing a scathing review, because then they could it write off due to my lack of credentials, than having to look either of them in the eye after the fangirling that is to follow.

Ride at the Vaults Festival, March 2020

Amble

Ride is a new musical from Bottle Cap Theatre which has just finished a run at the Vault Festival, based on the life of Annie Londonderry. Because of my tendency to descend into ramble, I’ll put my conclusion here: this is a slick and accomplished piece of theatre and if it is ever put on again, you should go and see it. For now, nothing seems to be planned but keep your eye on their Twitter – even if it’s not Ride, I’d be confident that whatever they do next will be worth a look.


A note on the Vault Festival: this was my first time attending and I have to say, it is right at the centre of my bubble. It takes place in the arches under Waterloo station, a space covered in permitted graffiti – a permission that allows middle class losers like me to nod appreciatively as if we think it’s Art. The corridors between the events space were filled with a sort of fog – or was it vape clouds? – reminiscent of the late night fug of a students union club night or (in My Lovely Partner’s view) a laser quest venue. The loos were a revelation of reassurances – a sign proclaiming values of inclusivity, LGBTQ+ support and various other policies, the “If you’re on a date and it doesn’t feel right” posters (users of women’s loos will know what I mean, and I’m not saying here because it’s our special secret/of limited value if sex pests know what it is), and, joy of joys, gender neutral toilets. I was one of about fifteen people I saw in dungarees. I will be back there.


So, back to Ride and to Annie.

Annie Londonderry was the first woman to cycle around the world, from 1894-95. Ride consists of her telling her tale, pitching herself as a columnist to the publishers of the New York World. As she continues, the audience starts to understand that her tale may have a few inconsistencies, and learns the truth about Annie.

There’s your non-spoilery intro. Now let’s get to it.

Cast

The tale is told by Annie herself (played at the Vaults by Amy Parker) and a reluctant assistant, Martha (Amelia Gabriel).

And… that’s it. Once I realised this was a female two hander, my gynae senses were tingling. It was already a tale of female empowerment, but now it was going to be told by two women.

Amelia Gabriel (L) and Amy Parker (R) as Martha and Annie.

Parker was great, bringing the necessary fire and tenacity to Annie. While there was the standard knot in the stomach when an English audience realise their compatriots are playing American, her Boston accent didn’t set off any alarms to me (Americans may disagree) not withstanding the occasional reversion to Musical Theatre Voice during the numbers (credit to MLP for that observation – don’t worry, he also said nice things). Annie is played as impressive but veering on unlikeably strident, which I enjoyed – why do we have to pretend in theatre that only “nice” people succeed? – and which became more forgiveable with the revelations that followed.

…Annie Londonderry was flawed; she was slippery, she was creative, she spun contradictory tales to journalists, she she understood how to charm people and she used it to her advantage.

Freya Smith, co-creator and director of Ride (more here)

Gabriel was also enjoyable – Martha enters as a timid character, voice wavering, and the am-dram alarm bells rang as nervous energy is one of the most easily overplayed traits in theatre (as ever, spoken as an audience member). She didn’t overdo it, though, and the two played off each other brilliantly, particularly in the (ample) comic moments (and perhaps a little less so in other emotional states). Unlike her character, Gabriel herself was not overshadowed by the strong female lead.

Story and production

My recent musical theatre experience has been the razzmatazz of full on West End shows, where there is always backing singing and dancing unless the song is a slow, sad one or is about two people being in love. I was a little nervous about whether two people would be enough for a musical. But this worked fantastically Рthe two women taking on a whole host of characters and emotions and using the simple props to full effect. After the relentless onslaught of & Juliet where any and every prop, character and lighting effect would be thrown at each number, Ride was a refreshing (ring the clich̩ bell) change, with two people, an office chair and a hatstand more than sufficing for an engaging and visually satisfying performance.

This is particularly apparent in the two opening numbers. The second, “The Wager”, sets up Annie and Martha’s relationship and personalities with startling efficiency and involves some fantastic choreography (sorry – movement?) as the characters (and hatstand) slip in and out of various characters to tell the story of the businessmen’s bet on whether Annie could complete the challenge.

The opener, “Ride” – a catchy summary of the freedom Annie feels on the bike and the societal objections to women riding, is catchy and its content reminiscent of one of the best examples of this I’ve seen – Me and the Sky in Come From Away (almost definitely not a legal link…). Some enjoyable wordplay too – but if I ever refer to an inanimate object as my “new best friend” please punch me squarely between the eyes.

I am a sucker for a story of a woman breaking into a man’s world. The show describes Annie’s struggle to be taken seriously – her comical asides on the barriers to entry for women (e.g. a lack of cycling clothing designed for women and stuffy accusations that time in the saddle would compromise a lady’s all-important purity) delivered with aplomb.


Annie’s story is all the more impressive given her background. Born Annie Kopchovsky, she went by Londonderry during the ride (a sponsorship deal with a local company) in order to disguise the fact that she was a Jewish Latvian immigrant at a time where that was yet another (and very significant) hurdle.

Annie’s stories are inconsistent (Martha intermittently working up the courage to interrupt the strident Annie to query her, only to be shut down). Annie’s true identity is eventually revealed, not only her heritage but the fact that she has a husband and children, and that the wager between businessmen (supposedly the catalyst for her trip) may never have existed, but was possibly fabricated by Annie to gain publicity for an achievement which otherwise may have been ignored.

It’s a great addition to the classic “woman overcomes societal prejudice” and a story that definitely deserves to be told. And if you want to see a musical about female empowerment, give & Juliet a miss and instead watch this and then listen to a 90s Smash Hits CD.


My main criticism of Ride is that I want more of it. I caught myself checking the list of musical numbers provided with mild panic – “another song already? But we’re still only in France!” – as we raced towards the finishing line (get it?).

Annie’s relationships along the way end abruptly and without fanfare: a friendship with a French customs officer (played as an “Allo Allo” caricature to big laughs and a smidgen of Remoaner discomfort) which is developed over two songs and ends in a single line, and a potential love interest which is given the closest-to-romantic song of the show but again, is abandoned almost without discussion and used as a vehicle for the revelation that Annie is Jewish and married.

I don’t by any means wish to say that there should have been more romance (in this uber-Bechdel compliant production it would be “absoid” – rhymes with “distoibed” – to require that), and perhaps the curtailing of these relationships is another way of demonstrating Annie’s erratic, intense and inconsistent storytelling. But once the key revelations are made, we are whisked to the end of the show as fast as the actors’ legs can pedal. For all the set up, the penultimate section feels like it could have given us more to get our teeth into. The final song is a satisfying finale, but we still left the theatre far too early.

With a running time of one hour, Ride would have been hard pressed to do any more. I’m intrigued to know whether these constraints are imposed by venues, festivals, or budget, or whether they are an artistic choice of the writers. I could see Ride easily working if expanded to a “full length” show.

Cryometer

This is another rare zero-cry production. There are a few reasons for this.

As mentioned above, the pace and length of the show mean it would have to be a pretty hefty gut punch to get even me to shed a tear.

While the subject matter is moving – struggle through adversity, sexism, anti-semitism, death of a relative – the latter two are dealt with rapidly and with a level of abstraction which means the focus is more on Annie’s strength and bravery than on the adversity that makes her achievement so impressive. (Let that sentence serve as a reminder of the value of brevity…)

Ride doesn’t take what seems to be the obvious route of, once the adversity is revealed, wallowing in a slow, musical-theatre-whisper number in a minor key. Instead, Annie collapses and the story of the journey (including a rare shout out to Sri Lanka in musical theatre) is taken up by Martha, leaving no time for tears.

Also, I’d only had a half of stout beforehand.

Ramble

Perhaps another reason that I didn’t cry at Ride is that I was transfixed. I had never heard of Annie, and was keen to know more. Hearing at the start of the show that she was only 24 at the time of the ride was particularly (favourite world alert) jarring – four years my junior and she was a trailblazer.

To watch this on International Women’s Day, having spent the week listening to coverage of the women’s T20 World Cup which had culminated that same day, was a apt But that it also hammered home the fact that people can achieve so much in so little time, and in the face of such adversity, made me feel a slight traitor to my gender.

THAT’S RIGHT MOTHERFUCKERS, I’M MAKING IT ABOUT ME

The cricketers I could ignore. While I am impressed by sporting prowess, it is so inaccessible to me that I’d never resent a Wimbledon champion for being half my age and wish I had spent my life training. With Annie, though, her achievement was not just a sporting endeavour but a glass-ceiling-busting, prejudice-defying feat of derring-do (and yes they say derring-do in the show), and reminded me that I. Have. Done. Nothing.

As I watched Annie’s tale, I was also distracted by the storytellers themselves. Two talented women, making a career of their passion, and doing so bloody well at it. The fact that one of the writers of the show, Freya, was someone I know really hammered this home. I’m not close with her – acquaintances really – but she feels like a peer, and here she is producing this. I occasionally caught sight of her at the keyboard, hair in a half up-do like a blonder Alice Fraser, and felt a swell of inferiority which while not unusual for me was particularly powerful. (See why I was more worried about being effusive than critical?)

I can cope with Lin-Manuel Miranda being a genius, but someone English and my age-ish and in my social circle? That’s too much, man. It was like the moment of realisation a couple of Fringes ago that the comedians I admire these days are within five to ten years of my age. Rose Matafeo won the Edinburgh Comedy Award and dated James Acaster, both achievements I could only dream of emulating, and she is two weeks younger than me for Christ’s sake.

Now I have started this whole process of “what the fuck do I do with my life,” with its offshoot of “what is my passion and is that a thing?” seeing people who seem already to know and to have put the effort into pursuing it is a wrench. Alice Fraser, forever a beacon of hope during my former career (she has spoken about previously having a similar job and look! She’s now an incredible comedian!) is now a reminder that I still have no clue what I want to do and even less chance to excel at it (which, try as I might, remains important to me. I guess I’m not excelling at trying not to want to excel).

But I do at least remind myself that some poor misguided fools may have felt the same about me a year or so back. All these creative people are doing is putting in work, and providing output. I did that with aplomb in the field of Big Evil Commercial Law, it’s just that that output is less public and less impressive.

In fact, Freya’s partner once asked me about the process of applying to and training at a Magic Circle law firm, as he was exploring training contracts at the time. Poor bastard. This was before I quit, so I was busy being miserable, and the fact that someone was interested in the job and had some implied respect for my achievements probably gave me a modicum of self-respect that month, maybe enough to sustain myself through another classic three-meals-at-your-desk, bottle-of-wine-and-ten-fags-before-bed day.

Now I’m out of it, I wish him all the best if that’s still what he is trying to do (for all I know he was just being polite by asking). Some people like that job, they really do. Now I’ve put myself voluntarily into career purgatory, I am feeling a lot of pressure on my decision of what to do with my time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of career. One of the terrifying parts of this step is that vast, empty stretches of time have opened up before me like those never-ending American highways. Signs pop up through the day: “Acceptable Drinking Time: 2 hours”, “You have just missed: Lunch,” “Tiredness kills: take a break,” and I feel like if I am going to fill them with anything, I need to do it well.

And then I enter the long lists of things I wish I could do, rather than things I think I should try doing. To take a lesson from Ride and cut a long story short, this results in me continuing to do nothing. But hey, at least I’m writing about it now.

(Credit for all images: Bottle Cap Theatre.)

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