by Laura Kressly
Sophie has been running competitively since she was nine. Now on the threshold of adulthood, she’s training hard with an unwavering focused on major international competitions she is likely to win. Her life completely revolves around her sport and everything else – school, relationships, hobbies – are so far out on her periphery they often disappear. The arrival of a new girl at her running club, Ann, initially changes little for Sophie until their friendship develops and Ann starts pulling far ahead.
However, this isn’t really Sophie’s story. Playwright Ella Road is presumably inspired by the real-life, news-headlining story of Caster Semenya who was banned from running due to ‘elevated’ testosterone levels. In this play, Ann is basically Semenya so the climax is hers, and Sophie just happens to be there. Yet as much as real-life events and information from Semenya’s life closely inform Road’s plot, the viney undergrowth of emotional landscape between the two young women is what makes this play so compelling. The balance of trust, competition, and love (both platonic and romantic) – along with their very different cultural and familial backgrounds – is delicate, prone to unexpected fluctuations and impossible to untangle. Performers NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont, as Ann and Sophie respectively, ring true throughout. Their stamina is particularly impressive in light of director Monique Touko’s staging that often has them running, climbing and otherwise exercising.
Road particularly excels at capturing the vulnerability of these two girls as they navigate extreme circumstances in the public eye. The issues they must deal with would be challenging for anyone, but they are literal children whose youthful identities are completely defined by their sport. Take those away, and their worlds are shattered. All they have is each other, but even that relationship is fragile at best. The ambiguous ending suits this well, despite it losing some of the earlier momentum.
Though there is sometimes a tendency towards didacticism, it generally works within the context of the girls’ relationship where Ann must constantly labour against Sophie’s privilege. Ann first reminds her of her whiteness and wealth, then is faced with Sophie’s transphobic ignorance. It’s so, so much work for a girl who just wants to run, and gives voice to those who just want to get on with their lives but are faced with daunting systemic marginalisation seeking to tear them down.
Fair Play runs through 22 January.
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