Sunday, 30 July 2023

REVIEW: Ride at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant

In a world filled with familiar shows that pedal out the same old story time and again, Ride shines as a beacon of originality, artfully weaving the little-known history of Annie Londonderry into the most extraordinary and exciting musical experience. Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams have skillfully crafted a captivating narrative that transcends time and place, touching on subtle feminist themes, the power of storytelling, and the complex relationship between reality and self-perception. But don’t worry; it’s done in a fun, fascinating, and fabulously fantastic way that makes the story even more compelling that it already is.

That story is that of Annie Londonderry who, on the back of a wager that may or may not have actually happened (she is the most unreliable of narrators, as we come to find out), carries out the astonishing feat of cycling solo around the world. And this was in 1894. And she’s a woman. And now she’s home and wants to tell her story (and get a job as a journalist in the process). That’s impressive, but it goes deeper than that. Ride shows Annie Londonderry as more than just a record-breaker on a bike – she’s a real person and she’s just as complicated as the rest of us.

Under the immaculate direction of Sarah Meadows, Ride absolutely rockets through the story with the sensational Liv Andrusier in the role of the indomitable Annie Londonderry. Andrusier's performance is powerful, notes soaring, emotions allowed to come to the fore (particularly in the song “Stranger” that has the most incredible ending) as she breathes life into this not altogether pleasant but utterly understandable survivor, ensuring we get to know Annie as a woman with wit, charm, and determination. From her multi-octave vocal range to her magnetic stage presence, Andrusier commands the audience's attention and takes them on a breathtaking journey through Annie's triumphs and challenges. Even if they might not all be quite true...

As the story unfolds, we find ourselves drawn into Annie's world through the framing device of her pitch to a roomful of press men, with the help of the equally terrific Katy Ellis, who plays the hapless but endearing secretary, Martha who, it turns out, is something of a revelation not just to Annie but to herself as well. The duo's chemistry is electric, and Ellis’ transformation from an awkward onlooker to an empowered young woman is quite something to behold. She definitely holds her own on stage (she plays a multitude of roles through Annie’s story; Celine, the French customs official, is the comedic highlight of the entire show, and Fred Rose, a potential love interest, is beautifully drawn, but there are plenty of others too), and when she and Andrusier sing together, something magic happens – I’m not sure I breathed for quite a while towards the end of “Miles Away from Boston”.

The music itself (orchestrated by Macy Schmidt) is modern and energetic, and it sticks with you, particularly the title song itself which comes early on in the show but makes a few reappearances throughout in different guises – when it turns up, it’s like hearing from an old friend who you’re always pleased to get in touch with. It’s been in my brain since seeing the show, and I’m not sad about that.

The set is also worthy of mention. Set designer Amy Jane Cook starts us off in a newspaper office, but with a few tricks and changes – including a rather fabulous moment when train carriages pop out of the wall – we’re suddenly with Annie on her journey across the world. The set is fun and stylish and constantly surprising the audience, which is not an easy thing to do.

Ride has many more miles left in it, and it’s going to reach the finish line with a lot of new fans lining the way.

Review by Lisamarie Lamb 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: H16 | Price of Ticket: £28

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