The Man With the Hammer (Theatre Royal Plymouth)

Phil Porter’s new play puts cycling centre stage

Push on! Push on! Keep going until your legs burn and your heart is pumping and you feel you can’t go any further. And then keep moving forward, onward and upward.

Phil Porter‘s new play, The Man with the Hammer, puts cycling centre stage, literally, with the cast of three spending the entire 90 minutes in the saddle. At its heart is the story of a widowed father and his daughter, trying to navigate their way through life and finding some kind of common ground on two wheels. But he also reminds us that obsession is just a heartbeat away.

Tony (Tim Chipping) is a hard-working dad bringing up daughter Jodie (Harriet Slater) alone after the death of her mother. Conversations between them are fairly perfunctory – "That you love? You’re late…" is followed by the ritual of how her classes went, whether she’d eaten and what was for tea ("I picked up a frozen pizza").

It’s what is left unsaid that troubles us. Why was Jodie covered in mud and blood? And why has her college attendance suddenly dropped off?

Of course, Tony has his secrets too. A lifetime of work as a plumber has given the 45-year-old the body of an old man. A daily dose of drugs keeps the shoulder, back and legs pain-free enough to carry on working. It’s just the headaches he has to contend with now. Piercing. Debilitating. Crippling.

Help comes with gears, a lightweight frame, handlebars and a gel-filled saddle. On a bike, Jodie can feel safe. She can also be alone, whizzing along country roads or through towns, lost in thought. Perhaps a bike could help Tony too? What harm can fresh air and exercise do?

A bike certainly helped young Irishman Noah (Jonny Holden). It put some distance between him and his disciplinarian dad. For him, cycling provided the means of escape and offered an intoxicating new life of training and racing. You just need to steer clear of the man with the hammer – the mythical beast that haunts the roadside, threatening to strike down any cyclist who pushes too far.

Porter’s play offers some simple ideas well executed by director Justin Audibert, but the staging adds a fascinating dimension. Three bikes in constant motion but going nowhere, tension rising and falling as the story changes gear. At times the pace is relentless and all credit on a physical level to the company in this Theatre Royal production.

As the seductive sound of the bikes carries us on, it’s easy to see how the simple act of propelling yourself forward by moving your legs in circles can become central to your life. For Jodie it offers freedom, for Tony it’s reconciliation. But for Noah a line is crossed and there is no turning back.

The Man with the Hammer runs at Theatre Royal, Plymouth until 26 March.