Stuart King

Review: RIDE at Southwark Playhouse Elephant

In the early days of America’s burgeoning preoccupation with celebrity culture — 1895 to be precise — Annie Londonderry became something of a superstar, having achieved the unthinkable by circumnavigating the globe on a velocipede (bicycle to you and me)!

Ride - Southwark Playhouse ElephantLiv Andrusier and Katy Ellis in RIDE at Southwark Playhouse Elephant. Photography by Danny Kaan

New musical RIDE which tells of Annie’s ups and downs, was taken for a limited spin at Charing Cross Theatre last year where it deservedly generated a swathe of tumultuous reviews. Now, it has returned for a further outing in front of audiences at Southwark Playhouse’s newer venue at Elephant and Castle.

By the time of Annie’s feat, bicycles had been around in one form or another for several decades and (due to the perceived extension of personal power and the freedom they afforded), interest in the contraptions exploded on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s, with the New York Times gushing that they enabled a rider to feel “…almost possessed of wings”.

In Liv Andrusier’s performance, the cyclist’s pioneering spirit is brought to the fore and there is little hint of the poverty-stricken, Jewish-Latvian immigrant mother who exists in a Boston tenement slum and yearns for the wide open spaces and to achieve something of significance. Through sheer tenacity and chutzpah she refuses to accept the rebuttals of sundry newspaper proprietors, doubles down on her sass and recruits Martha (one of the newspaper’s undervalued notetakers played by Katy Ellis) to join her as official recorder on the madcap retelling of her escapade. But did the Phileas Fogg-esque adventure really materialise due to a wager? And exactly which elements truly occurred and which were retrospectively conjured to flesh-out and entertain the adventure-hungry readership of the day?

In Freya Caitlin Smith and Jack Williams’ musical, we are left in no doubt about the imbalance of power between men and women of the period, nor do the writers fudge the realities of poverty and the inequality of opportunity in the land of the free, but in the main the show focuses on escapism, brief romances and the chase to the finish. The lyrics drive everything at a brisk and lively pace with some great rhymes (…You are fire, I am ice, you’re verbose and I’m concise) as well as rousing, jaunty and playful note play as delivered by Sam Young and his small band of exceedingly invested musicians. The title song “Ride”, “Everybody Loves A Lie” and “Miles Away From Boston” deliver in spades and form the backbone to a very accomplished musical.

Ms Andrusier’s personification of Annie remains the same diminutive, fast-tawkin’, charming-yet-irascible bag of confidence and self-doubt, redolent of Streisand at her kookiest and with a voice capable of belting with the best and offering-up the gentlest of touching ballads. She truly is deserving of fame and future comedic roles of challenge and heft. Another of the stars of the show which has been snappily directed by Sarah Meadows, is Amy Jane Cook’s neatly contrived set which reveals new surprises even as the musical winds down to its conclusion.

The burning question has to be, which producer has the kind of adventurous spirit to put this show in the West End where it belongs?