RIDE at the Southwark Playhouse
“skilfully and beautifully performed under Sarah Meadows’ flamboyant direction”
If you keep going North, you will eventually go South. If you keep going West, however, you will never go East. That is a reality. But like many realities, it wasn’t to stand in the way of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world – albeit mostly by ship. A pioneer, pragmatist, opportunist and somewhat unreliable storyteller, Londonderry had a casual relationship with the truth. This is the thread that runs through “Ride”, the musical by Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams. Adopting the format of a pitch in which Annie is trying to sell her story to an offstage panel of senior (and presumably male) newspaper editors, it veers into a more introspective journey of self-reinvention.
Dubiously and rather loftily described as ‘the greatest story ever told’, it was nevertheless declared by the ‘New York World’ in 1895 as the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman. Annie’s version of events is a fascinating tale, particularly in its time. Beyond the headlines, Londonderry was really Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a young, Jewish mother of three small children. She abandoned her role of wife and mother to pedal away into history, earning her way through self-promotion, selling photographs and becoming a kind of mobile billboard. The name ‘Londonderry’ came from the first of several corporate sponsors of her journey.
The show touches on the darkness and complexity of Londonderry’s character and motivations, but for the most part follows the ‘triumph over adversity’ narrative. Liv Andrusier, as Annie, bears the bulk of the story. From the off, a commanding and cocksure presence, Andrusier renders a not particularly likeable character loveable. A mixture of self-confident cynicism and self-aware charm, she is captivating throughout, but truly soars when she sings. Andrusier has the presence to carry the show singlehandedly, but her character enlists the aid of Martha, a secretary at the newspaper. A reluctant aid at first, Martha soon gets into the swing of things, shedding her own awkwardness as she adopts the various characters of Londonderry’s story. Katy Ellis manages the role with expert precision, a sharp eye for comedy, and a voice of her own too that gradually steals a greater piece of the action. To the point of temporarily taking over when Annie grinds to a halt under the weight of her own back story. “Why are you so ashamed of who you are?” Martha asks at one point, underlying the hidden agenda that shapes Annie’s fierce motivation.
The motivation, though, is never that clear cut and sometimes the complexity comes across as confusion, and the intricacies of Annie’s identity – her Jewishness and bisexuality – are glossed over. This is a show that relies on its performances, which are undeniably faultless and fascinating. The three-piece band, led by Musical Director Sam Young, adds drive, but the compositions never really change gear. The cycle ride took fifteen months and covered numerous and varied terrains, the ups and downs of which are not fully reflected in the score.
Ninety minutes is admittedly a short time in which to depict an epic chapter in a colourful life. It is skilfully and beautifully performed under Sarah Meadows’ flamboyant direction. That is the reality, but as Annie repeatedly pronounces ‘it’s not about reality; it’s about the story’. The story comes across as an incomplete journey, and we are also left suspecting that the real Annie might have been more interesting than the one she fabricated. At any rate, we are left wanting to know more. Andrusier and Ellis, in tandem, make sure of that. Their presence alone is worth the ride.
Reviewed on 24th July 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Danny Kaan
Previously reviewed at this venue: