South Australia is in the thick of cycling fever. Professionals have been zipping around beaches, hills and vineyards for a week’s worth of Tour Down Under (TDU) stages, and the Festival of Cycling’s Tour Village has set up camp in the heart of the city.
The fun continued at the Adelaide Festival Centre, where Hew Parham’s one-man show, Symphonie de la Bicyclette, made its Adelaide premiere as part of the TDU’s program of events.
Opening with a depiction of German Baron Karl von Drais’ invention of the ‘mechanical horse’ in 1817, Parham’s very funny show was a celebration of the joys of cycling. He intertwined the dramatic story of two-time Tour de France champion and World War II Resistance hero Gino Bartali with the poignantly funny tale of ‘Hew’, an amateur cyclist who decides to take on a childhood friend-turned-rival in a charity race, learning the true meaning of life and friendship along the way.
Parham’s ability to flit seamlessly between characters and timelines was remarkable. He single-handedly brought to life not only Hew and Gino, but also a host of richly imagined supporting roles (such as Gino’s wife and family, Hew’s macho mentor Tony Chestnut, and a despondent hoodie-wearing ‘dude’ that Hew befriends in a laundromat). Even in rapid-fire conversations between two or more characters, Parham’s range of voices and subtle shifts in posture (it’s no surprise to learn he studied physical theatre and clowning) were usually enough to differentiate them with ease.
The scenes he conjured were so vividly drawn that it was easy to forget his only props were a chair and a stationary bicycle. A beautifully designed soundscape by Will Spartalis and clever lighting from Wendy Todd aided him in this feat.
Various storylines and carefully planted details came together and reached their (slightly absurd, but no less satisfying) denouement towards the end of the show. In Parham’s hands, cycling is an effective vehicle for discussing modern masculinity in all its manifestations: Gino’s selfless heroism, Tony’s mission to transform his pupil to a hardened winner, and Hew’s realisation that the relationships he forms along the way are more fulfilling than any race victory. The progress of Hew and Tony’s friendship, in particular, was unexpectedly moving.
Symphonie de la Bicyclette will naturally appeal to cycling fanatics (Parham’s collective noun for such a group is a ‘moisture’), but even those who’ve never been tempted to slip on a Lycra jersey would find plenty to relate to in this very human story.
Symphonie de la Bicyclette by Hew Parham
Adelaide Festival Centre
Symphonie de la Bicyclette was performed from 17 to 21 January 2023