'Ride' review — the overwhelming volume drowns out the fascinating storyline
Read our review of Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams's new musical Ride, currently performing at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant through 12 August.
Annie Londonderry was a remarkable "New Woman" of the 1890s with a flair for self-mythologising. Born Annie Kopchovsky to a Jewish family in Latvia in 1870, she and her family emigrated to the United States a few years later. A caregiver to her younger siblings from a young age, she entered an early arranged marriage and had several children while selling advertising space. Little of this made its way into the press. At 24, she had the chance to be "Annie Get Your Bike" when she was approached randomly to attempt to be the first woman to cycle the globe and adopted the surname Londonderry due to a sponsorship deal with Londonderry Lithia Spring Water, cutting a strikingly modern figure as an early influencer who cycled with adverts on her back.
The creators of the Londonderry-inspired musical Ride, Freya Catrin Smith (book, music and lyrics) and Jack Williams (music and lyrics), first learned about her in 2019. A 20-minute version at the Bishopsgate Institute was followed by a pre-lockdown presentation at the Vault Festival in March 2020, prior to a full production at the Charing Cross Theatre last summer. Despite these multiple incarnations, Ride still feels like it’s finding its way and at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant. The primary takeaway is how relentlessly loud this show is, suffocating a fascinating story in an excess of volume and vocal gymnastics.
Sarah Meadows’s production, running at 90 minutes straight through, often feels claustrophobic, performed within a mahogany proscenium arch that frames an office lined with worthy-looking books (designed by Amy Jane Cook). Smith’s concept is that Annie has to prove to a panel of men that she’s worthy of a journalism job and explores the best way to pitch herself through a semi-improvised travelogue. Katy Ellis, as starstruck secretary Martha, comes into her own as she eases into Annie’s roleplay game, though an encounter with a dour French customs official goes on for far too long.
Liv Andrusier’s fast-talking and bluntly honest Annie is like a Jewish Jo March or a character played by a young Barbra Streisand (she would make an excellent Fanny Brice in Funny Girl). Her voice is remarkably powerful and her range is huge, but Smith and Williams’ samey songs have little light and shade. The lyrics aren’t always audible, and there’s no sense of the time in which the story is set.
Not everything needs to be belted from Elephant and Castle to London Bridge in order to make an impact – in fact, belting is far more effective when it’s applied sparingly, and there are plenty of other ways to demonstrate emotion and conviction. Andrusier’s facial expressions are more than enough. There is some softness in the number with uninteresting WASP-y Harvard professor love interest Fred (through whom Annie demolishes the idea of the Protestant work ethic) and a Yiddish lullaby exploring maternal ambivalence and Annie’s reasons for running away, but both build to a predictably strident climax.
The bicycle itself only features in one scene, demonstrating its role as a means to an end rather than a personal passion. The office set opens up to evoke hokey projections of the desert but costumes are well handled with puffed-sleeved shirtwaist blouses, and there is a real sense of the joy of physical liberation by donning bloomers. But the volume is unrelenting. If there’s one thing that this show demonstrates, it’s that beltier isn’t always best.
Photo credit: Ride. (Photo courtesy of production)
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