Ella Road’s new play ‘Fair Play’ offers an incisive look into the world of women’s athletics and the lives of those who inhabit it. Premiering at the Bush Theatre, the show invites the audience to glimpse into the pressures and anxieties that these athletes deal with, having to contend with never-ending public scrutiny and judgement passed on their bodies, lifestyles and choices, on the track field and outside. Directed by Monique Touko and designed by Naomi Dawson, there is a searing rhythm to the evening that doesn’t let us look away for even a second.
The play opens with Ann (Nick King), a young Black girl who has joined a local running club in London. Here, she meets Sophie (Charlotte Beaumont) has been training for a while. Both these young girls are short-distance runners in training and aspire to compete at a professional level. Whilst they share the same dream, they couldn’t be more different from each other. Sophie has been training since a very young age, lives a regimented life and swears by her coach Paul’s training routines. Running (and training) encapsulate every minute of every hour in her life, a passion that is supported by a financially secure family environment. On the other hand, Ann comes from a working-class family and must find time for school, household chores and Church whilst keeping up with a rigorous training schedule. The two make friends during their long hours on and off the field, training relentlessly to make the perfect lap time. As with any competitive sport, they are soon pitted against each other and their friendship suffers a blow. Ann goes through to the World Championship on her own accord whilst Sophie squeezes in with a wildcard entry. However, a routine screening test throws up an ‘abnormal’ result for Ann, who is subsequently disqualified from the race and banned from competing. With all her hard work and breakthrough success now being reduced to an ‘unfair physical advantage’ due to excessive testosterone in her body, Ann struggles with the growing media attention and public opinion. She laments the lack of solidarity shown by Sophie, who continues to focus on running given the opportunities that have come up with Ann’s exclusion.
Nick King delivers a moving, emotionally charged performance as Ann, bringing forth the character’s emotional growth as she slowly comes into her own and begins to question the systems who are telling her otherwise. Charlotte Beaumont slips into Sophie’s shoes completely, balancing the character’s confident, self-assured exterior with a more vulnerable and volatile inner state. Road’s text is as political as it is personal, bringing out the story’s central argument by focusing on her characters’ relationship with their own bodies and their response to how others see them. She contextualizes the role played by gender, race and economic class into informing this ‘gaze’ through a clever juxtaposition of the two characters’ socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Her writing also encapsulates the frenetic pace of Ann and Sophie’s world – short, intense scenes with brisk dialogues are interspersed with some relaxed ‘breaks’ in action – and masterfully captures the passage of time in between. This is backed by Touko’s precise direction, which blends the distinct rhythm of each performer’s spoken word and movements through swift transitions. Matt Haskin’s light design and Giles Thomas’ sound design work in tandem to weave us in and out of these transitions effortlessly. Every single moment we witness on stage is imbued with precision and intent, and for this we must credit the entire creative team who put it together.
To summarize, Fair Play offers a searing commentary on how female athletes are subjected to a relentless physical, emotional and moral examination by different stakeholders in the sport. With measured performances, an eclectic production design and dynamic movement direction, we are confronted by the central question – who gets to control what the female body is and why?
You can watch Fair Play at the Bush Theatre till 22nd January. Learn more and book your tickets here: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/fair-play-2021/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 8th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★
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