Fair Play by Ella Road – Bush Theatre, London
Ella Road’s new two-hander is set in the world of track athletics but the two characters, Ann (NicK King) and Sophie (Charlotte Beaumont) are not just any runners. They are young, promising, female 800m runners. They train under the instruction of an off-stage coach to fulfil their potential. If they do the reps, eat the right food and, above all, commit they can follow a pathway that goes from national to European to world championships and, eventually, the Olympics. At first Road’s play seems to be concerned with the friendship between two young women, sharing the particular pressures of pursuing a career in athletics alongside school and the pressures of growing up. Her writing is very engaging. We quickly feel we are witnessing the ups and downs and the shared experience of Ann and Sophie. The play’s structure is short and sharp, divided into the reps that govern their training. As the progress to championship level, they become closer, Sophie’s cockiness complementing Ann’s worried elegance. The play’s headline theme – gender definitions in athletics – is kept until daringly late, and therefore comes as a shock. Ann’s disqualification and the effective end of her career after her testosterone levels register too high for her to qualify as a female competitor, open up a gulf between the two. Road pulls off the difficult trick of dramatising an argument that is familiar from news headlines without allowing the debate on stage to seem contrived.
Director Monique Touko’s staging is dynamic, energetic and paced like an 800m race. She builds the tension on Naomi Dawson’s running track set gradually until, without realising, we are flying at full throttle. Both performers bring a convincing physicality to the play, with stretching, limbering up and running as the rhythm of their lives. Their practice sequences cross the line between athletics and dance. Beaumont and King carry the audience with ease, strong performers who work well together. The issues ‘Fair Play’ raises are wide ranging, and troubling. The use of an arbitrary hormone cut-off point, decided by white men, to decide who is and is not a woman appears indefensible. Although Road works hard to build a counter-argument in the form of Sophie’s relief at having an explanation for why her friend’s times are faster than hers, and her resentment at this advantage, she clearly has limited enthusiasm for doing so. But this is a play about more than the issues of gender testing, important although that is. It raises questions about the demands placed on young athletes, especially young women, and the nature of competitive sport itself which demands that everyone sacrifices all to be the best, while knowing that very few ever can. Winning seems a delusion that chews up lives for our entertainment, but athletes still choose to do what they think it takes. ‘Fair Play’ provides a genuinely thought provoking evening, and new writing of a very high calibre.