Greatest cycling race ever staged in Greenwich

If this summer is set to be remembered for the extreme heat we’re experiencing, it has also been a major summer for sports fans. The final of the World Cup and the men’s final at Wimbledon fell on the same day, the Anniversary Games have just finished, the Tour de France is approaching its conclusion, the women’s Hockey World Cup is taking place in London now, and August will see the inaugural European Championships in Glasgow and Berlin.

Sport has always had an odd relationship with theatre. It is often assumed that theatre audiences and sports fans are separate, that supporters of one would not attend the other, and yet major world sporting events can have a major impact on audience figures in the theatre – the night of England’s World Cup semi-final match saw reduced numbers in theatres across the country, and at Greenwich we had already changed the time of our event on the day of the final in case England made it through.

Despite this slightly uneasy relationship with theatre, sport has found its way onto our stages as well. The Beautiful Game by Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bend It Like Beckham by Charles Hart and Howard Goodall each took football onto the stages of the West End. John Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under, about a struggling rugby team, was a stage play before it became the much-loved film with Neil Morrissey. Earlier this year we hosted a performance of the new play When The Eye Has Gone about cricketer Colin Milburn after a national tour of performances at come of England’s most renowned cricket grounds. Before any of those, the multi-Tony Award winning musical Damn Yankees put baseball on stage. However this autumn – for me at least – sees a first in terms of plays about sport.

Ventoux, from 2Magpies Theatre, tells he story of professional cyclists Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani, and their Tour de France battle on Mont Ventoux in 2000. At the time both were champions in their own right. Armstrong had won the Tour de France the previous year, and Pantani the year before that. After a thrilling head to head on the race’s most fearsome mountain they crossed the line together, but their careers subsequently spiralled in very different directions. Armstrong won an astonishing 7 consecutive Tour de France titles while Pantani died of a cocaine overdose alone in a hotel room.

We now know that both athletes were guilty of doping during their careers – something that Armstrong denied for years. In that light, Ventoux charts the parallel lives of these champions who overcame great adversity in tandem, the lengths to which they would each go to win, and the mountain that cast them in opposing directions.

In an interview with Broadway World, co-writer and performer Tom Barnes said “Our job is to convince cycling fans who have no interest in theatre to come along – on our last tour, 45% of our audiences were visiting a theatre for the first time! But for regular theatregoers, they will see a story in which there is something really human about wanting to succeed at something. The universal story is about dealing with ambition, the short cut offered by cheating – a human dilemma – and the subsequent price that has to be paid.”

Ventoux plays at Greenwich Theatre on 30 September.
James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

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