As part of the Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire, Ted Hughes poetry award-winner Katie O’Reilly’s new play LeanerFasterStronger seemingly has a lot to offer.
Extraordinary Moves, a partnership between Chol Theatre, Sheffield Hallam University and imove, developed the play to create a dialogue about bioethics and sport in a unique and challenging format.
But it feels as if all of O’Reilly’s ideas have been thrust upon the audience through a somewhat indulgent script and mismatch of subjects, from a tedious conference one minute to a contrived domestic argument the next.
The play opens at the ‘cross-disciplinary conference’, where four attendees settle down for a drink to discuss the day’s events. Their conversation starts as mildly intriguing – Philyda, played by a dynamic if unconvincing Morven Macbeth, conducts experiments on mice which could lead to a genetic revolution where parents can give birth to designer athletes.
But the dialogue descends into repetitive and sometimes clichéd banality, with one boxing character, played by Ben Addis, religiously saying “pain is not an option, suffering is” whilst working out, until the audience recoils with embarrassment.
The dinner table is littered with empty glasses and wine bottles – the actors sip non-existent wine from a foodless banquet. Instead, the ceiling is an animated circular reflection of their hands engaged in deep conversation at a sumptuous spread of food and alcohol.
Why designer Shanaz Gulzar did not consider that the production’s budget would be better spent on tangible and realistic props remains a mystery.
With four actors playing eleven characters, the problem is not that the audience cannot keep up. The problem is that there is no connection between each sub-plot, there is an unnecessary and sloppy inter-lapping of accents and a countless collection of stumbled lines and pointless choreographic quirks.
The troubled domestic episodes – which could have formed a fascinating and emotional pedestal for analysis – seem glossed over as the actors quickly cut the scenes short and return to prancing around as unbelievable athletes on building blocks.
The building blocks which form the main set of the stage were presumably intended to resemble a training gym for athletes. Unfortunately, they look like they had been stolen from Halifax’s children’s museum Eureka.
LeanerFasterStronger isn’t about theatre; this is about academic and philosophical consideration, analysis and debate. Ultimately, it is the debate that leads the production, resulting in a haphazard, confusing and inconclusive play which should have been as scrupulous in its direction as it was in its conception.
The play, directed by Andrew Loretto, may have been passable as an amateur production, but it often feels far too clumsy and contrived.
As it comes to an end, we are left with words from the Voice, played by Christopher Simpson, resonating around the Crucible’s tiny Studio, evoking the very nucleus of human life: the mother’s womb.
“That’s where it all begins – silence,” he says. As the lights go out on an obsessive athlete, also played by Simpson, screaming his stream-of-consciousness into the darkness on a stationary bike, the audience is thankful for precisely that: silence.