BWW Review: CASH COW, Hampstead Theatre
Ade (Jonathan Livingstone) and Nina (Phoebe Pryce) enroll their daughter in cheap tennis lessons. All of a sudden, she starts to get noticed and shows all the potential to become a prodigy of the sport. But what does it take to build a champion? Oli Forsyth's Cash Cow explores parental ambition and emotional sacrifice through the eyes of those who are supposed to push with tenderness.
The fragmented storyline takes the audience through the parents' humble beginnings to the drastic and painful choices they make to support their child and the dreams they have for her. Forsyth blurs the lines between blind encouragement and exploitation, showing how their personal motives perfectly hide behind the supportive façade and investigating ambition.
Director Katie Pesskin tries to keep the show snappy but can't mask the issue that the script appears to be inexplicably long. The short and quick scenes help with the time jumps but some of these definitely could have ended on the cutting room floor, as they weigh the action down and hamper momentum.
Livingstone and Pryce deliver detailed performances, playing with differences in energy and intensity depending on their placement on the timeline. The cracks between each other and their child appear and disappear seamlessly as they gradually begin to guilt trip her and take hold of her career.
On the one hand, they see investing in their daughter to allow her to have a life of luxury and wealth as the obvious thing to do once her potential is clear; on the other, they slowly start expecting more and more from her as payback for their sacrifices, showing their true colours.
Cash Cow is essentially an exploration of ethics, highlighting the short steps that separate profiting off children from having their best and honest interests at heart. It makes us wonder what it takes to achieve success at an early age: Nina asks her daughter to set aside her personal life and education in order to focus on tennis alone, reprimanding her for behaving like a "normal teenager" and forcing her to start competing professionally when she expresses that she doesn't feel ready to do so quite yet.
The parents become an impenetrable wall, allowing their offspring to be sexually abused and disregarding her wishes, only to have her turn against them once she is old enough to take her own decisions. The development of the play is rather predictable, though culminating with a powerful ending scene which is perhaps the most affecting and well-crafted of the piece.
Designer Anna Reid places Pesskin's production on an intuitive tennis court, outlining it with white lights that run over thin benches and enclose the plot. Small sets of stadium lights flood it with warm tones, which are interchanged with colder and sharper illumination through the beats by Ali Hunter.
The allegorical analysis offered by the play works well and can be applied to multiple industries. It start a conversation on the questionable nature of nourishing talent at a young age as opposed to "letting children be children", presenting a lengthy story that is, nevertheless, ripe with reflections.
Photo credit: Robert Day