“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.
“a journey into truth, emotions, reinvention, celebrity and human spirit”
A new musical that stormed the VAULT Festival back in March 2020 about a sporting pioneer who may have embellished the truth has blossomed into a fully-fledged show that more than proves its worth at Charing Cross Theatre.
Writers Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams explore the life of shameless self-publicist Annie Londonderry, who allegedly became the first woman to cycle solo around the world in 1895, in the captivating and lively “RIDE.”
If the original small-scale production was a beautifully crafted cross-stitch which made the most of one of the Vaults caverns, this revamped and expanded version is a well-embroidered tapestry in which every thread is perfectly placed in a brilliantly used larger space.
Born of Latvian Jewish background Annie Cohen Kopchovsky emigrated with her family to America in 1874/5 but refused to be determined by her past. History (or should that really be her story?) suggests that she wanted to write for a New York newspaper but was approached by two businessmen with a wager of $20,000 that no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months.
Despite the hype and sensationalism, it’s clear that Annie was a great saleswoman and raconteur, changing her surname to get sponsorship from a spring water company and telling increasingly tall stories during her journey which enthralled the crowds.
“RIDE” is a well-crafted musical about a fighter and storyteller with a timeless message of liberation and achievement, never afraid to present Annie’s less than admirable qualities, yet itself unashamedly being creative with a story about someone who had such a casual relationship with the truth.
At its heart is a story of a New Woman eager for change in society. Scrutinising her claims amidst so much showmanship and self-promotion is part of the fun of this indefatigable show, which tells the tale as honestly as it is able given that it is largely selling the reality of a fake American dream.
There are more songs and a longer running time, yet even now the show seems to be pedalling furiously to be something bigger. Still, with Amy Jane Cook’s design the stage is opened up to allow a journey into imagination and the performances are suitably larger than life.
The setting is a newspaper office where an enthusiastic Annie persuades reluctant and sceptical secretary Martha to help recount her deeds. It is a two-hander where both performers triumph, balancing and playing off each other with care and skill.
As Annie, Liv Andrusier has an egocentric Barnum-like presence, though showing off herself and her accomplishments rather than a collection of circus acts, walking a tightrope between truth and fiction as she agitates and elaborates. She roars her way through the lively numbers – the title song remains a fierce showstopper, one of the best new songs in a contemporary musical; she is bold and brazen as she recounts her truth (“Everybody Loves a Lie” is a paean to the art of humbug) yet grasps the vulnerable as she recalls her family and background in the face of loneliness, anti-Semitism, insults and struggles as a feisty woman in a man’s world.
Yuki Sutton’s Martha is a gem, the timid and dubious assistant becoming a mistress of fabrication, not only taking over the story but also elaborating upon it, becoming a commanding presence in her own right.
While the characters begin as opposites, each suspicious of the other, they gradually learn from and believe in each other, with their contrasts keeping each other on track. And Andrusier and Sutton perform soaring duets that set the stage on fire with vivacious harmony and intensity.
Director Sarah Meadows captures the sense of façade without losing sight of the personal stories, however hard the facts may be to grasp. There is colour, light and shadow in a production that never once glows dull.
The small band excites the moment they play their first note. Led by energetic conductor Sam Young on keys, with Frankie South on guitar and Alex Maxted on percussion, the musicians show understanding of and enthusiasm for every cracking musical number, all of which are memorable and of the highest quality.
Originally produced by Bottle Cap Theatre it is no surprise that the show was snapped up by Deus Ex Machina Productions, who surely recognised the show’s beating heart of liberation from trauma and expectations, courage in adversity and the embrace of change and progression.
Smith and Williams write with depth and quality and it’s hard to believe that the near-perfect smaller show has been developed into something even better. They must be contenders for one of the best writing partnerships out there and with “RIDE” they have created a work of fresh energy, and unbelievable fun.
Magically profound and stunningly creative this might just be one of the best musicals this year, a journey into truth, emotions, reinvention, celebrity and human spirit.