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Review: Deny, Deny, Deny (Park Theatre)

Jonathan Maitland's new play tackles doping in sport

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The ethics of world class athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs may be at the core of Deny, Deny, Deny but what makes Jonathan Maitland's tangy, riveting new play so watchable is its credible and compulsive depiction of rapidly deteriorating human relationships.

We first encounter runner Eve (Juma Sharjah, absolutely wonderful) giving an imaginary Gold Medal acceptance speech, only to be interrupted by the arrival of her sports journalist boyfriend armed with a vat of nutrient-charged protein shake and cheeky banter (Daniel Fraser invests him with exactly the right mix of earnestness and cockiness).

Eve is looking for a new coach to take her training to the next level and boy does she get one in the shape of ball-busting, terrifying but utterly fascinating Rona, an unscrupulous, lipsticked shark in a tracksuit. Rona sets about turning Eve into the champ she longs to be first by destroying her relationship and then introducing her to the questionable practice of "gene doping" whereby an athlete can, by injecting themselves with a protein solution, increase the levels of red blood cells which in turn enhances oxygen delivery to the muscles, thus improving aerobic performance.

Maitland has here created one of the greatest theatrical villains in modern drama, made more compelling by her ambiguous motivation (is Rona trying to relive her own past glories through Eve? Is she trying to get into her knickers? Does she really have a medical background?), and her sudden potty-mouthed outbursts. The scene where she takes over a press interview and begins decrying a competing pre-operative transgender athlete is a comic gem. Zoe Waites thrillingly plays her to the hilt, switching from icily intimidating to warmly cajoling then flat-out furious and back again, all in the blink of an eye. She's utterly brilliant.

The second half veers almost into thriller territory as spurned boyfriend Tom joins forces with a vengeful discarded protégée of Rona's (a satisfyingly venomous Shvorne Marks) to expose the reasons behind Eve's sudden prowess. Appropriately for a play about sport, the scenes are short, dynamic and impassioned. If the characters have a tendency to speak in metaphors rather more than feels natural, their treatment of each other -both good and bad- is entirely credible. The final scene between Eve and Tom is quietly moving in the way it ruefully mirrors the opening but shows all too clearly the human cost of Eve's overriding ambition. Fraser and Sharjah play it exquisitely.

Brendan O'Hea's inspired in-the-round staging (played out on Polly Sullivan's strikingly angular set) ensures that the tension and pace never let up for a moment. And all of the acting is superb, with Sarah Finigan completing the stellar quintet with a hat trick of beautifully judged cameos, the best of which is a genteel TV journalist rendered speechless by the rampaging Rona. The play is refreshingly unpreachy on the subject of athletes taking drugs and proves to be as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

Deny, Deny, Deny runs at the Park Theatre until 3 December.