Review: RIDE, Southwark Playhouse Elephant

A dazzling new British musical on the road to success

By: Jul. 25, 2023
Review: RIDE, Southwark Playhouse Elephant
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Review: RIDE, Southwark Playhouse Elephant In new British musical Ride, what begins as an small-scale story set in a small office expands into an adventure around the world. With only two women onstage and an intimate theatre space, we are taken on a vast journey encompassing themes of truth and identity.

The show begins with a simple premise: Annie Londonderry, the first woman to cycle around the world, is pitching a column to a newspaper describing her trip. As she embarks on a feat of storytelling, she ropes in timid secretary Martha to help her, playing all the characters she encountered on her travels. As the story develops, the lines between truth and fiction, person and character, all begin to blur and we are left questioning what really happened… and whether that even matters.

When it comes to direction and design, Ride is near perfect. Designer Amy Jane Cook has created a marvel of a set, constantly offering up new revelations, illuminating the world of the show through clever stagecraft and a touch of real magic. Breathing life into this set is director Sarah Meadows, who approaches this story with endless creativity, staging every single musical number with imagination and skill and adding depth and detail throughout. 

Also of an excellent quality are the songs. The titular number "Ride" is a certified earworm, leaving me and many other audience members humming its chorus all the way from the theatre to the tube. Meanwhile "Everybody Loves a Lie" is a real showbiz spectacular. The score draws on golden age musicals and late twentieth century blockbuster shows, as well as incorporating elements of folk-influenced MT. Writers Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams have a distinctive flair.

It doesn’t hurt that both performers have impressively strong vocals. Liv Andruiser as Annie Londonderry has a silky smooth tone and a stunning belt, and part of the joy of the show is just listening to her sing. Katy Ellis as Martha has considerably less singing to do, but has a beautiful voice with an understated power to it. Many of the best musical moments come when the pair sing in harmony - in fact it would have been great to see even more of this. 

The acting is similarly strong: Andruiser is a captivating storyteller, larger than life and full of energy, while Ellis is both believable and immediately likeable in the first half of the show, before revealing a chameleon-like ability to shift into other characters. With Meadows’ polished direction and some fun sections of choreography from Natasha Harrison, this is a first-class performance all round. 

I first encountered Ride a year ago, as part of a new UK musicals concert at The Other Palace. Even from just the titular song, it was clear that this was a show with a lot of potential, and that writers Smith and Williams have a talent for musical theatre songwriting. Now on its second London run, after a stint at the Leicester Curve, it’s surely West End-bound in the not too distant future. Ride is a real success story for new British musical theatre writing. 

What it really needs to move forward, however, is a rethinking of the book. There is so much that’s interesting about Annie Londonderry’s story - as historian Peter Zheutlin writes in the programme, "She was writing fiction about herself in real time". There are so many opportunities for innovative storytelling here, alongside engrossing themes of womanhood, immigration, and identity. 

However, the book suffers from trying to use too many narrative devices and a desire to interrogate too many themes at once. We already have the framing device of recounting the story as a newspaper pitch, and then the character role-play element adds another layer on top. This is where most of the confusion lies: the more characters we are introduced to, the trickier it is to keep track of who is speaking. Frustratingly, this takes the weight out of all the relationship dynamics portrayed, as it’s difficult to fully invest in them. It’s a fun concept, and there definitely is a way for it to work, but currently some restructuring needs to be done.

Ride in its current version is around 90 minutes with no interval, but it really could have done with one. Both the story and the way it is told changes pretty drastically part way through, and without a gap this shift is too sudden. There’s also a lack of pace and of stakes: the story kind of meanders along with no sense of urgency, when what it needs is a driving force to push it towards the finish line.

It’s also worth discussing Ride’s depiction of sexuality. The show flirts with queerness throughout, without ever reaching a conclusion. Annie refers to a French woman she meets on her journey as ‘her person’ in a throwaway line, and there is a kiss between the two women on stage, but it is while one of them is playing a male character. It almost seems as though the implications of this are going to be discussed near the end, but they never are. 

The concept of ‘queerbaiting’ is a hot topic at the moment and one that spawns controversy, but it does feel like that might be what we’re seeing. Ride would be equally strong as either a show about friendship and solidarity, or a show about romantic love, a choice just needs to be made.

For better or worse, this show could have been written at any point in the last forty years. There’s nothing tying it to the present moment, in terms of the themes, content, or form. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but its timeless, classic nature is certainly interesting in an era when musical theatre as a genre is being shaken up by shows like Hamilton and A Strange Loop.

Despite some dramaturgical issues, there’s no denying that Ride is one of the strongest new musicals the UK has produced in recent years. So many aspects of the production are already on-par with the best of the West End, and the story has the potential to be truly compelling. This is real musical theatre entertainment, whisking you away on a grand adventure for the night.

Ride runs at Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) until 12 Aug

Photo Credit: Danny Kaan




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