Just what does it take to be the best athlete in the world? If you start with a basic flair for running, apply Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (the amount of training needed for any discipline to become an expert), together with the most advanced training techniques and diet, you might hope to be in a position to compete with the best. Thereafter, much of success or failure can come down to mental attitude, which will determine whether you have the right focus to be a winner. But what if none of that is enough? If it is not a level playing field, and everyone else is getting some additional help from drugs, there may be little hope of success. Jonathan Maitland’s brilliant new play leads us to question what is really is cheating in sport and what does it take to push someone over the line to do it?
Eve (Juma Sharkah) is a good sprinter who wants to be great. She devotes all available time and energy to athletics, with the support of her sports journalist boyfriend Tom (Daniel Fraser), but is not satisfied with the speed of her progress. She seeks a new coach and is taken on by Rona (Zoe Waites), a qualified medic and (frustrated) former top athlete. Rona wants Eve to be a training partner for the successful, but coasting, Joyce (Shvorne Marks). There are question marks over how Joyce has delivered her performances, despite her campaigning against doping in sport. The real issues develop when, under the Svengali-like Rona, Eve is persuaded to dump her boyfriend and become involved in a procedure that “genetically modifies” her to significantly improve her performances. The speed of her improvement, the jealousy of Joyce and the desire to deliver proper investigative journalism by Tom all lead to the inevitable questions about cheating.
This is Jonathan Maitland’s third play and, together with director Brendan O’Hea, he has delivered his third success. The issues are handled with credible characters and a crackling dialogue that makes the play both current and accessible. Zoe Waites is impressive as Rona, unafraid to confront authority and question the rules, while Juma Sharkah as Eve superbly evolves from a witty idealist to a hard and focused automaton. Designer Polly Sullivan has produced a set that, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, uses floor lights to move us around running tracks and into court rooms – while also signifying the lines that are being crossed. Praise is also due to John Ross, the movement director, who allows us to sense the tension of the competition and the characters interaction as athletes.
Many of us who are armchair sports fans find it very hard to accept that our heroes may be cheating, but then deny, deny, deny are the first three rules of the doper’s handbook.