Theatre review: Symphonie de la Bicyclette

Brink Productions and Hew Parham hit Adelaide’s Tour Down Under sweet spot with this hilariously heart-felt one-man show about cycling, envy, masculinity and the many faces of heroism.

Jan 19, 2023, updated Jan 19, 2023
Hew Parham’s remarkable skills in comedy and physical theatre are on full display in 'Symphonie de la Bicyclette'.

Hew Parham’s remarkable skills in comedy and physical theatre are on full display in 'Symphonie de la Bicyclette'.

Looking across the full house in the Space Theatre, it’s clear that in the Venn Diagram of cycling enthusiasts and theatre lovers, there’s a surprisingly large area of overlap.

A grand overture swells. A man in a white tracksuit steps into the spotlight, arms raised in triumph. It’s a mere moment, a delicately choreographed combination of body language and facial expression, but as laughter swells, Hew Parham has the audience in the palm of his hand and holds them there for 90 minutes.

He begins with context – the dawn of the bicycle – a desperate chain of events in the early 19th century prompting inventor Karl von Drais’s flash of inspiration. Minutes later, we see the conversation between two French newspaper editors that sparked the Tour de France. Then we are whisked to 1948 and the hotel room of elite cyclist Gino Bartali on a rest day during the Tour de France as he receives a telephone call from the Italian Prime Minister urging him to win the race to save Italy from descent into civil war.

Finally, we arrive in the present day with the character of Hew, a depressed and chronically despondent comic actor, harboring a pathological envy of his old high-school friend Jake Johnson, now a professional cyclist and married to the woman Hew has desired since adolescence.

After an unexpected confrontation with the friend he feels stole his life, Hew embarks on a journey of transformation, attempting to reclaim the life that was meant to be his. Assisted by the hilarious coaching of washed-up former champion Gavin Chestnut, he sets out to win a long-distance bike ride in which his nemesis is competing.

Woven through Hew’s training for his ride to redemption is the story of Tour de France legend Bartali. From a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Italy, Gino’s incredible grit – both physical and psychological – is shown as he rises to become one of the most celebrated cyclists of the 20th century. During his training and racing in the 1930s and ’40s, Bartali finds himself a witness to the surge of fascism in Europe and uses his celebrity in cunningly quiet ways to save Jewish people during World War II.

Alone on stage for the entire performance, Parham embodies every character, from narrator to the story’s most fleeting personas. Under Brink Productions’ artistic director Chris Drummond’s brilliant direction, the ease with which the audience follows the dual storylines through multiple points of view and time periods is underpinned by seriously clever sound and lighting design.

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Will Spartalis’s rich soundscape of music and archival recordings and Wendy Todd’s sumptuous and inventive lighting design combine to flesh out the myriad geographical and temporal settings of this impressive piece of storytelling.

This show is captivating, the plot slipping briskly between the dual protagonists with exceptional timing, keeping the momentum of both narratives pumping along. While Parham’s remarkable skills in comedy and physical theatre are on full display for the entire 90 minutes, there are deeper themes at work. His writing is equally impressive, managing to explore the idea of heroism and the pitfalls of modern masculinity using the unlikely vehicle of two cyclists separated by temperament, geography and almost 70 years.

Symphonie de la Bicyclette is a shining example of the way polished stagecraft, inventive sound and lighting, and emotionally astute writing can combine to tell an intricate story in an utterly compelling way.  Adelaide’s cycling enthusiasts can now add theatre to the menu of delights brought to town for the Tour Down Under, and theatre-lovers may find themselves leaving with a new appreciation for Lycra.

Symphonie de la Bicyclette is playing at the Festival Centre’s Space Theatre until January 21.

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