As the introduction to this blog suggests, I'm not that excited by the Tour de France. Of course, I loved the spectacle when it departed from London in 2007. But on telly in foreign July bars, the Tour seems an endless loop: close-up of staring man on bike; aerial shot of peloton on winding pass; rear shot of oscillating bottoms and pumping legs. Blitz with subtitle data and repeat ad nauseam. And I'm still grappling with the idea that, as of this morning, Mark Cavendish has won three out of ten stages in this year's TdF and yet is 135th.
But this excellent, riveting play from Theatre Delicatessen doesn't require knowledge or even enthusiasm for the Tour to enjoy it. Even though it's firmly based around the TdF in 1999 and 2000, when American Lance Armstrong, German Jan Ullrich and Italian Marco Pantani were furious but warily respectful rivals for racing's top spot, and the stink of drugs scandals hung in the air like a sweaty nylon top.
The L-shaped performance space, in (the aptly named) Cavendish Cafe at 295 Regent St, is a scruffy garage-like affair. No 'stage'; the performers move among you, and you as audience move around following them. You're as much part of the action as those spectators at roadside cafes you see flashing past on Tour TV footage, and there's even a set of plastic garden tables and chairs if you want. Props are minimalist: some metal barriers, a makeshift 'press conference' stage, a hotel room, plastic chairs for bikes.
But as Lance said, it's not about the chair. This is an intense and gripping play of character, told mainly through Armstrong, Ullrich and Pantani in their own words, culled from bios and interviews. They pivot around the fictional fourth character of a journalist who acts as their sounding-board, provocateur, and sometimes conscience.
And those characters are superbly played. How authentic they are, how accurately it reflects history or the real Tour, isn't my concern; I judged it as a piece of theatre. Pantani (Tom Daplyn) is clearly the craziest of the three, a man of demons who see-saws between self-hate and hubris; the action begins and ends with his sad, desperate death from drugs in a hotel room. Everyone else's language sounds natural, but Pantani's - as that of self-certified geniuses so often is - sounds a bit stilted and over-compensating. (That's an observation about Pantani's own words, not the script.) Daplyn's intensity is superb and the final scene, where he still rails against the 'unfair' world, makes a poignant close.
Ullrich (Graham O'Mara) is the quiet man, perhaps too grounded and sensitive to outstare Armstrong or outbox Pantani. He's reflective, self-doubting, the only one who worries that maybe he's missing some of the everyday poetry of ordinary life. O'Mara's gently gritty northern accent and industrial-town demeanour was perfect to suggest the physically gifted but psychologically fallible East German. His thoughtful interview-confessionals with the journalist (Josh Cass) were fascinating. And the journo, a champion amateur who once turned pro and found his true, very modest, level with a bump, was a nice study of the dreamer-but-realist club cyclist.
But it's Armstrong (Alexander O'Guiney) who wins out, of course. It was often hard to believe that O'Guiney (who is American) wasn't Armstrong, with his unflinching, bony focus, grim truisms and press-conference platitudes. The portrait of a man who had stared death from cancer in the face and then outridden it by sheer force of will was very powerfully made, especially in the first half that ends with his 1999 triumph. The drugs got Pantani in the end, but with Armstrong we were left with the same questions as today. Outriding Ullrich and Pantani in the mountains 'clean'? Impossible! Evading detection as the most-tested man in cycling? Impossible! But given his relentless and driven character - familiar to anyone who has followed his torrent of Twitter feeds before quietly unfollowing them for some peace and quiet - anything is possible.
A brilliant portrait of obsessed men, and brilliant theatre. It's not about the bike; go and see it.
(And there's no problem with bike parking: in fact, you're positively encouraged to bring your bikes inside, right into the performance space. Ha! Beat that, National Theatre!)
Pedal Pusher is on at the Cavendish Cafe, 295 Regent St, until 1 August 2009, Tue-Sat 7.30pm. Tickets are £12 (£10 concs). Details www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk.