Review: SYMPHONIE OF THE BICYCLE at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

Competitive cycling as a metaphor for life.

By: May. 16, 2024
Review: SYMPHONIE OF THE BICYCLE at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
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Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Tuesday 14th May 2024.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Symphonie of the Bicycle, produced by Brink Productions, written and performed by Hew Parham, and directed by Chris Drummond.

It is a triumph, a tour de force from Hew Parham, whimsical and profound. Human experience is told through the grand metaphor of a bike race through the mountains. It began as a clown project. The character, Jacques Cornichon, with buck-teeth and massive thighs, was created for the Tour Down Under some years ago, and Parham worked on developing a theatre piece without success. It was director Chris Drummond who pointed to the dramatic possibilities of telling two stories at the same time, each illuminating the other. Parham moves between contemporary Australia and the north of Italy in the 1940s. The story of a diffident lad called Hew is paired with the great Italian cyclist Gino Bartali. Hew wants recognition and goes to all sorts of confidence-building workshops. Gino keeps quiet about his achievements, which involved smuggling messages past Nazi troops to aid Jewish refugees.

While one rider only rides for his own personal gain, the other, Bartali, a long way behind the leaders of his particular Tour, is told that his winning may defuse the risks of civil war in his homeland.

The speed with which Parham changes centuries, characters, and voices, is mesmerising. People are created in an instant. The dude in the laundromat, and the woman in the cheese shop, pop up for a moment and then reappear at the imposing and crowded climax. That climax brings the two stories together as they crash into each other. The first time I experienced it I wept. This time it was the banana reference that added something ludicrous and yet intensely magical to the ending. Giving someone a hand has never meant so much. Parham’s clown life shows in his physicality, but the emotional depth of both tales is deeply moving.

The last moments are the perfect ending. Bartali’s son lays flowers on his grave and quotes his father, saying that medals are not to be worn on the shirt, but on the heart.

The ambience in which he works, moves, and I should use the cliché here if anywhere, like a well-oiled machine, enhanced by Wendy Todd’s overall design of set, costumes, and lighting and, especially, Will Spartalis’s music and sound design, newly composed for this production. He references the Lacrimosa of the Mozart Requiem, and one of Handel’s saddest inspirations, Lascia ch’io pianga, the whole effect is superbly evocative.

I have one question about this extraordinary performance. The original of 2023 was called Symphonie de la Bicyclette, and this is the macaronic French/English version. You do have to ask yourself “Pourquoi?”

Whether you see the Tour Down Under as a great sporting event putting South Australia on the international map, or a lycra-clad moving traffic jam, this is a medal-winning achievement for Australian theatre.

The economic factors behind the rise of the solo show, and the creation of a performance text as opposed to a play, are pretty clear. Caleb Lewis is credited alongside director Drummond as dramaturg. His Cathedral, with Nathan O’Keefe as a diver trapped in a sinkhole, was a highlight of the 2022 State Theatre schedule. I mention him because someone should consider his Death in Bowengabbie, a work of great warmth and humanity.


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