Theatre Review: Symphonie de la Bicyclette


Presented by: Brink Productions, in association with Adelaide Festival Centre
Reviewed: 18 January, 2023

Sweet and smooth as a well-oiled derailleur, this elegy on human kindness, ambition, confusion and persistence springs from the mind of Hew Parham. His clowning and physical theatre skills enrich each moment; he is a passionate storyteller, having written this piece of theatre as well as performing it with zest.

The eruption of Indonesia’s Tambora volcano in 1815 resulted in an ash cloud which spread as far as Europe, resulting in severe temperature drops and crop failures. This is Parham’s unlikely starting point in a manic re-telling of Karl Freiherr von Drais, his inaccurately-named horse Felix (deceased) and the invention of the bicycle in Mannheim, Germany. Then there’s a story about two Frenchmen (one short, one tall) who together thought up the idea of the Tour de France. Story after story tumbles thick and fast from Parham, whose face, body and voice faithfully serve each narrative thread. His training in both acting and Pochinko clowning provides a secure foundation for this hilarious, tender, obsessive and physically engaged performance.

This one-man show is populated by a tribe of characters. There’s everyman Hew himself; his old high-school pal Jake, now an envied professional cyclist; a former cycling champ and motivational guru, Gavin Chestnut; a little old lady with a dog; a guy in a hoodie who can’t work the laundromat machines. And then there’s a whole Italian family from just south of Florence: not just World War II-era champion cyclist Gino Bartali (twice winner of both Giro d’Italia and Tour de France) himself, but also Gino’s younger brother Giulio, as well as his father. Parham commits wholeheartedly to each of these characters with superb vocal resources, carefully observed physical details and a fine ear for both accent and cadence. High praise to both Parham and his dialect coach Anna McCrossin-Owen for the meticulousness of the work.

Brink Productions’ well-known principle of employing South Australian-based cast, creatives and crew to present theatre of consequence means that the creative team for this show is formidable. Chris Drummond directs; dramaturg is Caleb Lewis. Both Parham’s writing and performance clearly benefit from the wisdom and experience of these two fine theatre practitioners who have shaped both the pace and the trajectory of these intertwined stories with a sure, light touch. Further development of this piece will undoubtedly result in a little tightening-up of the script, without losing any of the diversity, comedy or poignancy.

Technical demands of a one-man show are usually intense. Lighting design (Wendy Todd, with Aaron Herczeg as both associate lighting designer and technical operator), composition and sound design (Will Spartalis) combine to create a seamless environment for Parham’s performance. The transverse lighting (in the manner of some contemporary dance rigs) was especially effective, moulding geometric shapes in an otherwise empty stage with an upstage split screen. (On a personal note: hooray for a one-person show without back-projections.) The technical standards of this production are superb.

Yes, Symphonie de la Bicyclette is about cycling. But, more than that, it is a meditation on being human and having integrity. It is also extremely funny, poignant, emotionally raw and richly entertaining.

Reviewed by: Pat H. Wilson

Venue: Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 18 – 21 January, 2023
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
Tickets: $39:00

Read Glam Adelaide’s interview with Hew Parham HERE

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