Symphonie of the Bicycle

Symphonie of the Bicycle
By Hew Parham. State Theatre Company and Brink Productions. The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide. May 14 – 25, 2024

I have a confession, I know almost nothing about competitive cycling, except they wear Lycra and take over Adelaide once a year in the Tour Down Under, so I approached Symphonie of the Bicycle with a certain amount of trepidation!

On entering the Space Theatre, the performing area is dominated by a black monolithic structure reminiscent of the 2001 – A Space Odyssey obelisk. The lights are low and ominous, and shadows lurk at the sides of the space.

The solo performer Hew Parham (who is also the writer) appears in a white track suit, looking every inch the cyclist who later embraces his Lycra. Hew is well known to Adelaide audiences as an actor, theatrical clown, and all-round nice guy.

Hew is not a professional cyclist but “I’m not a full-time Lycra head. I’ve always loved watching cycling especially the Tour De France ever since I was a kid, it is such an epic test of human endurance.”

While looking for a humorous take on cycling for a new show, he found a different story of cyclist Gino Bartali, who risked his life during WWII to secretly transport documents to save Jewish people in Northern Italy. “I desperately wanted to tell his story. Looking for a complementary angle or human story to juxtapose Gino’s story, we invented the character of Hew being a wannabe cyclist. In many ways some of my losses and hurts from life were transplanted from life and into a cycling context.”

The story is told in a series of flashbacks from Hew present day to his alter ego Gino and of course we meet other characters in both of their lives, most notably Hew’s cycling ‘buddy’ Jake Johnson who trains Hew and a motivational speaker who introduces us to a stress release procedure called ‘Whack the banana!”

Director Chris Drummond has created an amazing performance space where the performer, lighting and sound all share the plaudits. It is a carefully crafted production in every respect.

Parham is a commanding presence on stage continually moving and working the audience with a frantic pace that only slows from emotional moments. He is also the master of physical humour and accents (I counted at least three, all convincing).

His ad libs to the audience are well placed, particularly when a message received tone was heard from the audience to which Parham quipped, “Get that later”!

He changes character in a slit second. The final scene has Parham and Bartali on the top of a hill, about to career down to the finish line till they meet in a time warp for a heart-rending exchange.

As good as Parham is, he is only part of a trilogy of production values. The lighting design by Wendy Todd (who also designed the set and costumes) is one of the best I’ve seen for a one-person show. Composer and Sound Designer Will Spartalis completes the trilogy with a magnificent soundscape that has a bit of everything, classical and modern.

The only real reservation initially for me was my lack of cycling knowledge which resulted in a partial understanding of the piece for about 20 to 30 minutes. However, that soon passed and I become engrossed.

Symphonie of the Bicycle is an absorbing 75 minutes celebrating two great men of cycling, one real and one imagined. It is a wild ride in every way!

Barry Hill OAM

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