Sunday, January 16, 2022

Fair Play at the Bush Theater brilliantly breaks through the complex politics surrounding women’s bodies

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The play explores gender, biology, prejudice and privilege with breathless, throbbing, muscular dynamics

Through the development of a friendship strengthened by rigorous training and challenged by competition, she explores gender, biology, prejudice and privilege – and in Monique Touko’s exciting production, she does it all with breathless, throbbing, muscular dynamism.

Sizzling with kinetic energy, set in the world of women’s athletics, Ella Road’s new playset brilliantly carves its way through the complex politics that surround the female body.

The action happens on the track, but beyond the stadium, life is a race with its own rules. Who wins medals, who should stay on track, who has a lead – and is it all fair?

Naomi Dawson’s sports arena set, Matt Haskins’ glaring floodlights, and Giles Thomas’ sound design of buzzers and launchers immediately raise the adrenaline and anticipation.

So when teenagers Sophie (Charlotte Beaumont) and Ann (NicK King) literally clash at a training session, it’s almost like a gladiatorial match.

Already a rising star, white, middle-class Sophie appears proud and confident, a sarcastic, defensive touch to their conversation. Ann, who was born in Nigeria and is new to the club, is more reserved.

A bond grows from their passion for running, and they not only compete against each other, but also exchange trust and become close. But tensions escalate insidiously as Ann keeps overtaking Sophie – and when Ann fails a hormone test for “abnormal” testosterone levels, they both begin to question everything they thought they knew about each other.

There are strong echoes of South African athlete Caster Semenya’s experience when Ann was banned from racing – a decision that leaves her an object of lecherous curiosity and ridicule, and goes to the heart of her identity and humanity. But even before this devastating blow, the everyday things of the conversation between the two – boys, school, hooks about their looks – have a dark pull.

They are committed to a sport that consumes them: There is casual talk of bulimia and lack of training, of restrictive diets, of speed-limiting breasts and thighs. At the same time, they are commodified: sponsorship deals for prestige and big bucks depend on how beautiful they are; Your male trainer is a relentless bully on the hunt for medals and glory.

But there’s also sheer joy in her physicality, in the power to push herself to her limits, beautifully captured in the movement directed by Joseph Toonga and Orin ‘oriyo’ Norbert: Beaumont and King sprint relentlessly in slow motion, swinging from training bars, stretch, bend and lunge.

They’re great, their snappy exchanges full of sweaty, intimate intensity and edgy, erratic energy. And Road and Touko hold us tight, every springy step on the way to the devastating finish line.

Until January 22 at Bushtheatre.co.uk

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