“Everybody loves a show!” declares Annie Londonderry - the real-life Bostonian immigrant who, in 1894, accepted a wager to cycle around the world. And with this striking, fast-paced, thoughtful new musical, Bottle Cap Theatre deliver a show indeed. On the face of it, it’s a story of feminist empowerment - a celebration of a woman who had the confidence and chutzpah to out-balls the men. But there’s a flip-side to that brassiness. Given all that she’d genuinely achieved, why did she feel driven to tell so many outright lies?
The opening scenes are an exhilarating rush, as the improbable wager’s set up and Annie sets off on her 15-month journey. The music’s chirpy, catchy, an ideal fit for Annie’s buccaneering persona; it’s a genuine treat to hear it performed live, by a four-piece band at the back of the stage. The fearless traveller’s early adventures include hustling with her sponsors, feeding an insatiable press, and dodging inconvenient bureaucracy - a reminder of how little some things have changed in the intervening 125 years. And because it’s a musical, there’s a love interest of course, in the person of a Harvard professor Annie meets in Egypt.
But since we’re halfway through the running time and she’s barely made it out of Europe, you don’t need a Harvard PhD to know this breathless style of storytelling won’t be continuing all the way round the world. A change is coming; a sudden shift in topic and tone, which casts Annie’s exploits in a different and starker light. Behind the façade, we learn she is fragile - not the stereotyped fragility that her sexist detractors are expecting, but a deep and irreparable fragility born of human suffering. And there are jarring reminders of an uncomfortable truth: that the vulnerable in society will try to protect themselves, sometimes in ways that more privileged observers dismiss as immoral or cruel.
Amy Parker is magnificent as Annie. As you’d expect, her singing voice is strong, but the physicality she brings to the role is even more striking; look out for the quirky staccato dance which introduces her bicycle, gloriously represented on stage by a rickety vintage char. She draws from deep wells of emotion, but delivers it in oh-so-subtle measures. The triumphal anthem she sings as she departs turns almost imperceptibly to desperation, as the rigours of weeks on the road begin to take their toll.
And it’s all layered in with a sweet, smart meta-story. We know from the start that this is a re-enactment - a story that Annie, now back in Boston, is telling an interviewer - and in a swirl of high-handed enthusiasm, she press-gangs a young secretary called Martha to help her tell the tale. Annie’s over-brimming confidence eventually trickles down to the mouse-like Martha, teaching this diffident assistant that she has both talent and insight of her own. But, as with so much in this show, there’s more to it than that; the considerate, practical Martha also acts as a mirror, in which Annie’s occasional selfishness and recklessness can be exposed. Amelia Gabriel excels in this nuanced, affecting role, yet at times her performance is very funny too.
In the end, this isn’t a musical about a cyclist: it’s about stories, and our appetite for lies, and the difficult truths we try to leave behind us. It’s complex without being complicated, challenging yet enjoyable, and the themes and tunes all come satisfying together in a beautifully-constructed finale. This is the second year on the trot that we’ve cracked out five stars for Bottle Cap Theatre, proving that 2019’s The Limit wasn’t the limit for them. I hope with all my heart that this show will ride on - but still, catch it at the Vault if you possibly can.