Review by Daz Gale
We appear to be living in a golden age for new musicals with no shortage of exciting new works (many from new writers) emerging over the last year, with a fair few to come over the next six months too. One of these new musicals that has managed to get people talking is RIDE. Having gone on a bit of a journey itself, picking up steam as it goes, it returns to London this week for another cycle. Having loved the show when I first saw it last year and being made aware this production had a number of differences, would I enjoy the ride as much on my second lap?
Initially performed as a 20 minute version in 2019, RIDE went on to take VAULT Festival by storm in 2020 returning the following year in a workshop and opening at Charing Cross Theatre in 2022 to critical acclaim. It tells the true story of the remarkable Annie Londonderry who settled a wager to become the first women to cycle across the world in 1894. What follows is a whistle-stop tour through her adventure as the plucky 24-year-old recounts the events that led her to that moment, with a few surprising turns along the way.
Attempting to describe the story behind RIDE would be a bit of a disservice to the show. When I first saw the description of the show before I had seen it myself, I didn’t think it would be something to appeal to me. In that respect, it can be a bit of a deceptive show – it is about far more than one woman’s journey around the world on her bicycle. It is more about the woman’s journey in herself as she attempts to find her own path and stay on it as she faces turbulent times. Yes, the bike metaphors come thick and fast – both in this review and in the show itself.
The clever narrative which allows Annie to tell her story and connect with the audience sees her making a pitch for a column in the New York World newspaper. Telling her story with the help of an unsuspecting assistant, it almost breaks the fourth wall as she looks directly at the audience, speaking to the imaginary group of gentlemen deciding whether to give her the job or not. This is just one example of how Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams have perfectly crafted a story with a clear understanding of how to relay it effectively and allowing Annie and her story to connect with ease.
The book by Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams is exceptional in itself – full of writing which manages to veer from witty to warm in mere moments. Always clever and full of unexpected depth, you are led to believe you are in safe hands as you are guided through Annies story. The excitement level never drops in a story that is consistently captivating, at moments feeling as if you shouldn’t blink for fear of missing something. What truly elevates this story is the sudden and sharp turn which sees it go from a seemingly light and care-free show to revealing something with far more substance. This is signposted briefly throughout but glossed over quickly until Annie reaches the point of no return and spirals as the truth about her life is revealed. In other hands, this deeply different twist in the narrative could prove jarring. That isn’t the case here, with the shift in tone expertly driven to allow maximum impact. There have also been some changes from last years production with a greater nod to a queer love story in a way that feels most welcome and natural for the story.
Smith and Williams are also responsible for the music and lyrics in RIDE. There are times when the same writers do the book, music and lyrics that one element is notably stronger than the other. That isn’t the case here as the music and lyrics more than match the stunning book. Feeling like an instant classic, if opening number ‘The World’s Greatest Story’ doesn’t set the standard, the title number ‘Ride’ which follows will surely leave you in the dust. In a particularly impressive show, this is without doubt the strongest number and feels like an instant classic. Closing number ‘Ride The Moment’ is equally impressive in a show full of memorable numbers that will leave you thankful for the existence of the original London cast recording. Beautifully orchestrated by Macy Schmidt with expert musical supervision with Sam Young, the rousing score was among the best I have ever seen at either of the Southwark Playhouse venues (an impressive statement given the incredible show at the venue this follows).
Liv Andrusier returns to the role of Annie Londonderry, having won an award for her turn in it last year. Liv doesn’t so much play the role as completely become Annie in a performance that continually blew me away. Liv’s ability to tap into the essence of a character is world-class in a performance like nothing I have seen before. I say that despite seeing her in the same role last year. While I was impressed by her performance last year, she has really kicked it up a gear this time around with a real affinity for the character and inspired choices throughout. Her charisma, ability to command a stage, versatility in her acting skills (and accents) and ability to truly channel the characters emotional core are all great qualities… and then there is her voice. A ridiculously talented performer, Liv’s voice feels almost impossible in its abilities. A beautiful tone, insane range and an unrivalled ability to penetrate the heart with her vocal made this one of the all time great performances and left me in no doubt that I was witnessing a true star on that stage.
The only other person on the stage with Liv is Katy Ellis, joining the production this year as Martha Smith. From her shy and awkward entry as Annie’s unsuspecting assistant, we witness a gradual growth in Martha’s confidence and abilities as she takes on a number of acquaintances from Annie’s life including a love interest and even Annie herself at one point. It is her turn as customs officer Celine that really stands out though in a brilliantly comical and exaggerated portrayal. Katy proves herself to be an outstanding performer in a demanding role, forming a formidable double act with Liv Andrusier’s Annie.
Sarah Meadows’ direction brings Annie’s story to life in inspired ways. With the new Southwark Playhouse Elephant space repurposed in to a smaller proscenium style, the relatively small stage is used to great effect, working beautifully with the two cast members to create often animated and never boring choices, furthered by fantastic movement direction and choreography from Natasha Harrison. Amy Jane Cook’s set design is beautifully detailed and full of hidden secrets that reveal themselves remarkably, while Jamie Platt’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound design ensures the whole thing always looks and sounds flawless.
I knew I was watching something special with RIDE last year. When it came to writing my review, I debated whether to give it 4 or 5 stars. In the end, I settled with 4 with the reasoning being it was a brilliant show but perhaps wasn’t quite perfect yet. Consider that “problem” (and what a problem to have) solved. However good this show was last year, this year it is even better. The incredible writing and jaw-droppingly phenomenal lead performance already made this an outstanding piece of theatre but the minor tweaks and additions to the show have turned this into something extraordinary.
If a great show has the ability to make you feel something, RIDE does this better than most. Its bold choice to completely flip the narrative into something with a lot of depth and poignancy connected with me in a way that reminded me what theatre has the ability to do at its best. Having already been on a whirlwind journey, it feels safe to say the best is yet to come for RIDE. With a show as sensational as this, expect it to go all around the world.
RIDE plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 12th August. Tickets from https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Danny Kaan