Ride - Southwark Playhouse Elephant
Annie Londonderry Rides Again
Returning after its debut run last year, Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams’s musical marvel is back. Armed with subtle and ingenious alterations the production is fearless, dynamic and an unquestionable triumph, representative of the best that the British musical theatre scene has to offer.
This exhilarating new musical chronicles the extraordinary journey of Annie Londonderry, the trailblazing adventurer who in 1895 accomplished the miraculous feat of becoming the first woman to cycle around the globe, challenging waining cultural and religious expectations with every mile. She weaves a fine line through the landscapes of truth and fiction, able to relax her morals when needed to further the greater cause. Annie is a master storyteller, forever defining the most effective narrative to suit her desired outcome, even if that means the truth is somewhat discarded. We see her pitch her story to the New York World newspaper, roping in secretary Martha and the pair present her story, covering the wager that triggered her exploit, the assorted characters along the road and ultimately the reality of the situation once the truth becomes inescapable. A vitally important story that deserves to be heard, and thanks to this production it is.
Endorsed by Annie’s family, the text is rich with historical detail and strikes a perfect balance between plot progression and character development. Never wasting a moment it equally toys with some what-ifs around Annie’s personality, leaning into various unknowns to great effect, exploring her sexuality and even questioning the reason for her setting out on the road. The songs, like the script, are fantastic and rousing, once again finding that balance between plot and character. The score is cohesive, brimming with melodic callbacks and motifs that form a path through the show - the band sounding wonderful under musical direction from Sam Young. We were promised a few more surprises in the musical numbers than before and we were not left disappointed. During ‘Everybody Loves a Lie,’ the team distils a few crafty elements of stage magic through a seemingly endless supply of props and tricks that dazzle over the already shimmering score. New musicals of this quality are so rare and precious - Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams’s talent cannot be understated.
Liv Andrusier, reprising her award-winning performance as Annie, takes the stage with pure kineticism and passion, imbued with a maturity far beyond her years. Her borderline belligerent Annie, brims with confidence essential for her to be heard in the male-centric world she occupies, determined to forge a new path for herself and other women. She is loud and brash but does not alienate herself, instead enticing us in, each of us eager to hear what she has to say next in her charming Bostonian drawl. Her vocal prowess when delivering the demanding score is astounding, gifting a masterclass in acting through song - the dynamic inflections and measured emotional beats enable her to soar. During the climactic number, ‘Stranger,’ she gives everything and the near scream of despair as she grasps for the top note of the melody is haunting and huge. With help from director Sarah Meadows, Andrusier has established a rare authenticity in her performance, convincing me that this is a role she was born to play - soon to be a sought-after West End star, mark my words.
Stepping comfortably into the shoes of Martha is Katy Ellis, guiding us through Annie’s madcap story. Martha’s comedic presence and clownish nature have been accentuated since its last outing and Ellis magnificently rises to the challenge. Her physical work beautifully conveys Martha’s rollercoaster of thought whilst Annie holds the reigns of the narrative and her clumsy hesitance to join in with the hijinks is hilarious. Throughout the piece there is an exchange of confidence and through Martha, Ellis discovers further characters in Annie’s story, sandboxing their purposes and uncovering compassion, empathy and a little dash of romance along the way - the character subtly evolving until she is near unrecognisable. Ellis calmly adapts to the demands, neatly dancing between the layers of the story, utterly convincing throughout. Empowered by fantastic casting and direction, the pairing of Ellis and Andrusier is electrifying to witness, crackling chemistry that like the rest of this production demands to be seen on a (much) larger stage.
Adapting to the rejigged space at The Southwark Playhouse Elephant (seen for the first time in its end-on configuration,) Amy Jane Cook’s set design is once again marvellous. Jam-packed with tiny details the office space cleanly expands and in tandem with Jamie Platt’s playful lighting the world of the show escapes the confines of its original setting. Matt Powell adds some nice projection design onto the backdrop, generating a beautiful vista during the heartfelt ‘Miles Away From Boston.’ A notable addition has been Andrew Johnson’s cheeky sound design that accents tiny moments - small punctuations that add cheerful detail to the proceedings. This production roars of united collaboration, the creative cogs working together to present a uniform vision with Sarah Meadows tying it all together. The extra weeks of rehearsal and development have proved worthwhile, the creative team able to break new ground and explore more of this worthwhile story.
Joy and heartbreak radiate from this production and it is impossible not to be swept up in the impossible tale that unfurls. Simply put, this show is a must-see. A must-see that deserves to expand into bigger venues and play for audience after audience. Annie’s story when paired with this wondrous creative team and phenomenal cast is a match made in heaven. “What is reality?” Annie asks. The reality is that this show is a mighty addition to the remarkable, and still evolving, tale of Annie Londonderry, cyclist extraordinaire. A masterpiece.
Running until 12th August - Tickets
Photography - Danny Kaan