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Fair Play review – an exhilarating piece set in the fiercely competitive world of athletics

The production runs at the Bush Theatre until 22 January 2022

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont in Fair Play
© Ali Wright

Plays about sport are pretty rare, and plays about running, rarer still (possibly because it's so difficult to stage: off the top of my head I can only recall a well received Louise Page piece Golden Girls at the RSC in the mid 1980s, and the Hampstead Theatre's 2012 version of Chariots Of Fire which built temporary running tracks all around the auditorium). To be fair, calling Ella Road's remarkable two hander a play about running is a bit like describing Othello as a play about a handkerchief: this is an astonishingly rich and illuminating text, and a fitting cap on a brief but brilliant year of work at the Bush.

At first, it seems that Road and her ingenious director Monique Touko are simply lifting the lid on the fiercely competitive world of women's athletics: short staccato scenes are interspersed with trance-like sections depicting the rigorous training process (both performers are astonishingly fit). If it gets a little repetitive, that only goes to underline the focus and gruelling commitment required for competition at the level represented here. Road drip feeds vital information as the two runners get to know each other in between bursts of physical exertion, so that we get a clear picture of who these young people are. Or, at least, we think we do… the story-telling is deceptively clever.

Sophie (Charlotte Beaumont) has devoted her young life to sport, to the exclusion of pretty much all else. This has resulted in her becoming a major figure in the sphere of young female athletes, and newly arrived African American Ann (NicK King) is briefly star-struck after nearly knocking her flying on the track. The friendship that develops, the camaraderie and the rivalry, is created with such precision and economy that one hardly notices the power shifting between the two as Ann proves to be a formidable athlete, possibly in ways that the hitherto acclaimed Sophie can only dream about. To further tip the balance, Ann achieves the extraordinary while still indulging in occasional junk food and having a boyfriend, while Sophie is solely focussed on the track.

The writing is stunning. In the earlier scenes the characters are wary, charmingly gauche, entirely credible, and it is fascinating to watch Ann blossom through physical prowess ("I feel. Like the Queen. Of the Universe. I can do anything") while Sophie comes dangerously close to self-sabotage in her friend's long shadow. Road is too intelligent and generous a writer to make this a sort-of All About Eve-in-Lycra though, and gives both characters some satisfyingly complex motivations and back stories: Ann's family are deeply religious, not rich, and obsessed with their child getting a stellar education, while Sophie comes from considerable privilege and has never needed to consider much beyond the next race until her mother has a cancer diagnosis. As a result, Ann has a stillness and maturity that contrasts with Sophie's good-hearted, sometimes startling naivety. Both characters have wonderfully distinct voices, and each of them has moments of such beauty and honesty.

King and Beaumont give performances of such controlled brilliance–every breath, line, sinew, muscle flex feels totally authentic–that you almost forget you're watching actors. Beaumont's Sophie is exquisitely realised, a young woman suspended in time almost, defined by her sport but missing out on what normal youngsters go through. I'm not going to reveal how Ann's World Championship hopes are dashed (come and see the play), but King's journey from shy and eager-to-please to hollow-eyed fury is effective and affecting. Ultimately, both young lives are put under the glaring spotlight of public examination and the friendship is riven apart. Here, Road's already impressive script broadens into a riveting debate on contemporary topics–white privilege, race and gender identity, personal responsibility–that is resonant and relevant but, crucially, never feels like box ticking. These two performers match their material every step of the way.

Touko's energetic but precise production–strikingly designed and lit by Naomi Dawson and Matt Haskins respectively–simply doesn't put a foot wrong. It ends on a question mark, perhaps inevitably, but not before giving us a final brief burst of youthful joy from the younger selves of the (now somewhat broken) central characters, against the deafening, uplifting soundtrack of Heather Small's pop paean of affirmation "Proud". This moment, like so much that has gone before it, proves simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating. A much ‘bigger' play than it at first looks, and a remarkable piece of theatre. Run to the Bush for this one. I mean it.