Ella Road is a sparky young playwright with a keen interest in equality and genetics – and with a knack for producing plays far more exciting than that sounds: her 2018 pin sharp dystopian debut, The Phlebotomist, imagined a bleak future world in which DNA sequencing determined every aspect of human behaviour. She needles away at the subject again in this sinewy two-hander which is set in the present day and bravely pivots around the issue of gender equality in sport through the burgeoning friendship between two top class teenage female athletes.
Middle-class Sophie is already established, dedicated, super focused and benefits further from a lucrative sponsorship deal. Diffident newcomer Ann is Nigerian, lives with her mother in Hounslow, is religious, loves a McDonald’s, and dreams of being sponsored by Nike. The two girls initially circle each other tentatively before establishing a fierce connection.
Road approaches her subject by stealth. The first hour resembles a desultory lap around the track as the two girls banter, muck about, affectionately mock their coach and slowly, very slowly, make more physical contact. They talk about sex (Ann is a virgin although she has a boyfriend); periods (neither have them, because of their punishing training schedule); body image, and their fixation with success. They are ordinary teenage girls, and yet also anything but. Monique Touko’s tightly driven production, enclosed on both sides by a running track along which both girls pound up and down, punctures each short scene with fearsome workouts and a muscle shredding techno soundtrack. It’s fast paced and slow moving at the same time. You start to wonder just where it’s all going.
But then, the bombshell. A mandatory blood test at the world championships reveals a problem. Ann, who by this point has revealed herself to be the far superior runner, is forced to step down from the team. Sophie, who just scraped a place and who has been inwardly burning with frustration over Ann’s apparently effortless talent, continues without her. The lovely carefree intimacy so cherished by both girls – and so beautifully established – is replaced by resentment and rancour.
Inspired, one imagines, by the story of 800 metre track runner Castor Semeyana, banned from competing by the IAAF because of excessive testosterone levels, Road keeps her play focused specifically on the issue of sex disorder in female athletes, deftly balancing questions of gender, racism, privilege and equality with a humane portrait of the lives behind the headlines. How do you separate physical advantage from natural talent? What role does race play when it comes to mandating hormone levels within female athletes? Who gets to determine the relationship between sexual organs and women’s bodies in the first place? And if the play occasionally veers into debate mode, both the script and the performances ensure the audience is so invested in each character, such moments barely matter. As Sophie, Charlotte Beaumont effortlessly combines airy self confidence with self sabotaging insecurity. As Ann, NicK King deftly explores the transformation from nervy teenager to an athlete emboldened by her own extraordinary talent.
Road’s writing is so intelligently suggestive, it extends sympathy by definition to anyone caught in the crossfire of the wider debate raging over gender definitions. Yet it also implies in the wrenching final scene that the debate has become almost prohibitively toxic. More than all the glory in the world, Road suggests that in the end the greatest loss for Ann and Sophie is the unquestioned solidarity that once existed so naturally between two female friends.
Until Jan 22. Tickets: 020 8743 5050; bushtheatre.co.uk