When we are first introduced to Danielle Baynes’ Belle Époque protagonist in her self-penned one-woman play Bicycle, she has just received one of these two-wheeled contraptions as a gift from a male suitor. She is telling her pet horse all about it. And she shows off the bloomers she will wear when she rides the bike unchaperoned and after dark — the character a kind of proto-feminist in proto-pants.
Initially I thought the play was going to be a rather staid affair. I thought that the sole point of it would be to explore the misogynistic attitudes held by British society at large when women first started riding bikes. But, to its credit, Bicycle soon morphs into something that is a damn sight weirder than that.
The theatre company behind Bicycle, Lies, Lies and Propaganda, have made it their objective to craft theatrical works that “[do] more than reinforce stereotypes or preach to the choir," so I should have probably known that this wasn’t just going to be a pleasant, liberal-opinion-affirming show.
I should have known this as us audience members were led down two flights of stairs to the subterranean tunnel of a performance space, and filed past the sole other performer, Pip Dracakis, who was wearing a long black gown, standing beside an actual candelabra and playing baroque pieces on a violin. I shouldn’t have been as surprised when a certain Transylvanian Count was introduced into the play as a character.
And so follows a piece of theatre that is both a hodgepodge mélange of literary references as well as an indisputably modern work jam-packed with ideas about female liberty.
Baynes is luminous in her performance and is able to oscillate from levity to seriousness, as well as from character voice to character voice, with such an ease that she can hold an audience entirely in her thrall. Dracakis, as a musical accompanist, works well in tandem with Baynes, and the two have calibrated their respective performances together to exceptionally good effect.
And, thanks to direction by Michael Dean, and muscular movement direction by Amanda Laing, the main set-piece, the bicycle, has a fascinating physical presence of its own and becomes a conduit for all of the ideas that pulse through the show. The body of the bike is at times used to represent that of a horse or a lover; the spokes on a wheel are at one point transformed into the bars of a prison cell.
There are some minute issues with the writing in this show. Baynes drops the word ‘darling’ at the ends of sentences so much that unwanted comparisons with Edina Monsoon of Absolutely Fabulous are brought to mind. Also, some anachronistic language, like the word ‘upgrade’, is employed.
However, Bicycle is at all times a thoroughly engaging production of which Danielle Baynes and all those at Lies, Lies and Propaganda should be proud.
Bicycle will be running until March 3.