Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pantani, Ullrich, Armstrong and le Tour

It's funny. A year ago, I didn't know what a promenade performance was. But ever since Stovepipe at the Bush, it seems I can't avoid them! Saw the Young Vic's unforgettable Kursk and then For the Best at the Unicorn and then a few days ago Mincemeat in Shoreditch. Today it was Pedal Pusher, an elemental story of struggle, willpower and excellence, all surrounding cycling and the Tour de France. (So that's 5 promenades in just 3 months, after not even one in the first three years!)

The plot features three modern greats of the sport - Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, and the tragic Italian Marco Pantani. The setting is the late 1990s and early 2000s, when these three were battling it out amongst each other for supremacy. Who'll inherit the mantle of the immortal Miguel Indurain? Pantani is the charismatic crowd-pleaser whose career was derailed first by a horrific accident (that literally stripped his flesh from the bone) and finally destroyed by a positive dope test. Ullrich is the dour East German whose best proves not to be good enough to beat the powerhouse from Austin - Lance Armstrong, of course - who defied all critics and naysayers (not to mention testicular cancer that had spread to his brain) to win the Tour seven years in a row, thus putting himself up there with rarefied legends such as Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil.

Theatre Delicatessen who appear to have taken over a disused property on Regent Street (talk about prime location!) put on this show inside the cavernous ground floor space of the building. From the programme, it seems that the owners will eventually pull it down for a brand-new mixed development. But that's for later. For now it belongs to Theatre Deli and I remember they put on Hare's Fanshen on there last year, but I'd missed it.

This cycling play, however, I was not going to miss. It was propelled into the public consciousness by a highly complimentary Time Out review and such was the demand for tickets that they decided to stage an extra Saturday matinee - which is what I caught today. Rainy shitty weather, so a good day for the theatre.

It was a terrific couple of hours. To stage a show about the Tour de France without a single bike in sight is no mean feat, but they pulled it off. How? It was ingenious stuff. Plastic chairs were imagineered into state-of-the art racing cycles, as Pantani, Ullrich and Armstrong tackled the time-trials, climbed the Alps, conquered the fearsome Mont Ventoux, which Petrarch had climbed in the Middle Ages. (It reminded me of ghostly Shiprock, rising wild from the Navajo lands of New Mexico). All the while the trio fought bitterly with each other, the conflict between Armstrong and Pantani particularly intractable. They give us their life stories in the interstices of the races, glimpses of the ferocious motivation that drives them to such extremes.

There are a couple of magnificently staged racing scenes - one is Armstrong gifting Mont Ventoux to Pantani in the 2000 tour, another is the Texan fooling and then destroying Jan Ullrich a couple of years later. Even more impressive is the scene where Armstrong nearly destroyed himself when he forgot a feed-zone and went to the very brink of his physical limits in trying to finish a stage. Just as Pantani is revealed to have a terrible self-destructive streak, Armstrong shows superhuman willpower and self-belief; his charm is spiked with shafts of steel. Tom Daplyn is a dead ringer for Pantani, while sardonic Alex Guiney is excellent as Armstrong. Graham O'Mara's Ullrich is left to wonder what might have been. All the actors were in rare good form.

So an excellent play - full credit to the crew at Theatre Deli, and also to Time Out for exposing this to the rest of us. This one ranks highly among my plays of 2009, although promenade plays are physically quite demanding. No matter! In an hour, there's the final performance of Goodman and Stevenson's Duet for One. The fun never stops in this town.

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