Anyone for tennis? The grass court season has arrived so its strawberries and cream from here until August. Expect yells of “You cannot be serious!”, John Inverdale being sexist in the commentary box, and those funny moments when the player sometimes gives their racket to the ball collector because they’re playing so badly.
Wimbledon is just around the corner, and for the final show under his leadership at the Hampstead, Ed Hall has programmed a play about tennis. Smashing.
It’s a mystery to me why there aren’t more successful plays about sport. Rags to riches tales of ordinary teenagers who become overpaid godheads, neglect their formal education, and fall out with their family – they must be ten a penny in the sporting world. So why aren’t they on stage more?
Snobbery? Could it be that the theatre doesn’t regard sport as culture, despite the fact that more people gather together at live sporting events than they do at anything you could care to see in the west end. And that includes Thriller Live. Surely, the crossover audience figures are the stuff of a commercial producer’s dreams.
Anyway, Oli Jenkins has written one, and its about a young player’s rise to success and her rapid decline into the where-are-they-now category that is US reality TV. However, Cash Cow has very little to do with the child prodigy herself, and everything to do with the ruthless ambitions of her parents.
Hailing from a working class background, its no wonder that Ade and Nina are initially sceptical about their daughter’s aptitude for such an elite pastime. Tennis is for people who go to the theatre in Hampstead, not for the likes of us. But they justify it to each other seeing as she’s so bloody good at it, quickly committing themselves to a lifetime of conversations about string tension, and second serve accuracy. All aboard the gravy train.
But cheering on their little darling from the stands takes a turn for the worse when money and success start to look more likely – veiled threats, manipulation, and emotional blackmail ensue.
The play starts in two places at the same time. The first scene takes place in the present day, in the midst of the parents’ emotional banishment from their now formerly-famous daughter. We watch as the couple try to piece together a relationship with her in the aftermath of an implied event that was the cause of the split.
And the play also begins at the moment when they first realise their daughter might have the potential to become formerly-famous at all, speeding through the good times towards the crunch moment that will break them all.
But that moment never really arrives. We expect it to appear at the intersection of the two narratives, where the two threads finally meet. Instead, familial relations break down as the result of a series of poor parenting decisions, rather than one single dilemma. And because we never reach that sudden oh-fuck-that’s-where-it-all-went-wrong moment, it gives the story a feeling of gradual inevitability.
There is a scene when Nina and Ade discover that the tennis coach who has done so much for their daughter’s career, is also abusing her power. This should be the moment that brings the show to a grinding, morally befuddling halt. The very idea that a pair of doting parents might put their daughter’s career above her personal safety would make for great drama, but in the context of the story, it just feels like one more thing that happens to them on their quest for a child that exceeded their expectations.
In the course of these two narratives, the play covers a huge amount of ground, which both actors – Phoebe Pryce and Jonathan Livingstone – are more than a match for. The simple set gives the suggestion of an indoor sporting facility, but it is the two of them who successfully conjure up the dynamics of each specific moment. Pryce in particular is brilliant at shifting her vocal quality through extremely short scenes to indicate whether her character is feeling the hopeful pride of the early days, or the jaded exhaustion that comes later.
The couple soon become so resentful about all the money they have invested in airfares, and new trainers that they make a list of their expenses. Which is entirely plausible, but lists are not good for plays. They’re really boring to listen to. And it starts to make the rest of the story feel a bit like an inventory of predictable events that happen to an overly ambitious mum and dad on their road to strawberries and cream, Pimms o’clock, second serves, and double faults.
Cash Cow is on at Hampstead Theatre till 20th July. More info here.