Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre review: Ventoux, The Orchid and the Crow, Kieran Hodgson: Lance reviewed by The Scotsman’s David Pollock.
The Orchid and the Crow
Kieran Hodgson: Lance
The disgraced former Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has proven to be not just a rich source of material for shows at this year’s Fringe, but one which has produced three pieces of thoughtful, high quality work. In 2Magpies’ Ventoux, once you suspend your sense of disbelief that Tom Barnes and Andy Routledge are using their own Nottingham accents rather than those of the American Armstrong and the Italian Marco Pantani, this study of the pair’s brief but perfectly synchronised rivalry and its aftermath is touching and elegantly controlled.
Armstrong’s cancer is well-documented (and chillingly rendered here, as the play stops and the outline of it is chalked on his bodysuit); less well known is Pantani’s sad decline into drugs and death following his win at the infamously hard Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France in 2000, a win which many believed Armstrong let him take. Their dichotomy is summed up by the company the pair kept – Pantani with the wayward Diego Maradona and clean-cut idol Armstrong with Bono.
Barnes and Routledge jerk and throw their stationary bikes around, titanium whine of the racing wheels filling the space as they cycle into road footage they themselves shot cycling up Ventoux, and we observe Armstrong the titan and Pantani the screw-up emerge. Armstrong speaks with power and confidence, while Pantani sighs that he never made excuses to himself, only to the public. “Armstrong is the real wound,” he hisses, throwing a box of brown envelope testimonies against Armstrong, tales of syringes and blood bags and teaspoons of olive oil. But this play is too smart to judge, and it’s Armstrong, not so different after all, who eulogises Pantani at the end.
Daniel Tobias promises “a bit of talking, a bit of showbusiness, a little bit of cancer” with his entertaining warm and precise, if sometimes harrowing, The Orchid and the Crow. He sings upbeat rock songs with his electric guitar, and amusing comedy numbers which make sense of his and his family’s Australian Jewish atheism and his battle with testicular cancer 11 years ago. There’s an impudent warmth to his description of his childhood circumcision, and knee-crossing detail to the description of his orchidectomy – the removal of his testicle – and the subsequent chemotherapy sessions.
Amidst it all, someone gave him a copy of Armstrong’s memoir It’s Not About the Bike and he found inspiration. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, he sings, but with Armstrong’s name substituted as his deity of choice. It’s no idle comparison. To a cancer sufferer who was afflicted when he was, Tobias says, Armstrong had “suffered so that we could see what was possible”. Tobias’ disappointment in Armstrong now is real, but he knows that inspiration was too. The cyclist is Santa, not god: “It’s a good story, but I don’t believe it.”
“The steely-eyed Texan with the inspiring story and the impressive range of personality disorders” is also the catalyst for comedian Kieran Hodgson’s free show, a wide-eyed and exuberant tale of growing up in rural Yorkshire and leaving for the south to make his name – such as it has been made, so far. He recalls bike rides with the Scouts in his teenage years, climbs through the Dales with his mismatched mates, including Matthew with the nunchuk fixation, and writing to Armstrong for inspiration. He received a poster with a personal reply inscribed upon it; the motto “just do it” and an approving tick.
Here, again, Armstrong is a source of inspiration, although more in the sense that he’s window dressing to Hodgson’s own story of his time spent with an equally mismatched bunch of misfit friends at home and losers, hoorays and disinterested girls in London, and the inevitable return to the north in 2014 to see the Tour de France climb those same hills he remembers from his youth.
For the most part Armstrong is used to provide a linking theme rather than any extended insight, but Hodgson (oddly reminiscent of David Tennant in looks and mannerisms) is an astute comedian who brings wistful heart to a rapid-fire succession of high-quality jokes.
Each piece is distinctly different from the next, but as far as each shares a common theme, it’s this: that Armstrong was a villain because he won by cheating, but there remains a certain superhuman heroism in the fact he survived and managed to race again at all.
Ventoux, Summerhall (Venue 26) until 30 August / listings
The Orchid and the Crow, Assembly Roxy (Venue 139) until 30 August / listings
Kieran Hodgson: Lance, Voodoo Rooms (Venue 68) until 30 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 17 August 2015
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