Reviews Performance Published 28 November 2013

Beating McEnroe

Ovalhouse ⋄ 26th-30th November 2013

Inspired nonsense.

Tom Wicker

They’re bound to turn up here, but applying laboured tennis metaphors to Jamie Wood’s brilliantly bonkers one-man show doesn’t do it justice. Spending an hour in the company of his imagination is dizzying. This is a tour de force of inspired nonsense that bounces dementedly between audience and stage in ways that are always unpredictable, utterly hilarious and often giddily uplifting.

The springboard for the show – transferring to London’s Ovalhouse theatre after success at this year’s Edinburgh Festival – is the legendary rivalry between tennis titans Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which culminated in the ice-cool Swede’s shock defeat by the hot-headed American at the US Open in 1980, followed by his early retirement the next year. Their clash gripped the watching world.

Tennis fan Wood spins his memories of these events – he was six at the time – into an absurdist portrait of sweatband-wearing archetypes battling it out on the cracked court of his early childhood and awkward adolescence. It’s a psychodrama dreamscape of id versus ego, played for uneasy laughs and divided up by chapter headings projected onto walls or scrawled across his back.

From the start, which sees Wood – looking like the beardy, hippy host of a meditation retreat – solemnly toss tennis balls to us, we’re sucked into his topsy-turvy world. He casually commandeers members of the audience to act out scenes from his life, to use toilet plungers to recreate the sound of a serve and to wrestle with him. He banters with us but there’s never any sense of mask-dropping. It’s not quite a performance, not quite real. It’s strangely unnerving but also a buzz. You have no idea what Wood will do next.

Snatches of Eighties music, the burble of tennis commentary and sketches of little Wood and his older brother holding hands before an enormous lion are all part of the show’s surreally emotive scrapbook of unedited inner life. Watching someone draw a tennis court in a trail of salt pouring from a shaker tied to his head is almost hypnotic. The Alice in Wonderland busy carefulness of it all keeps things together even when the pieces threaten to fly apart.

Sometimes the show becomes glutted, its volley of ideas turning inwards rather than sweeping us up. But if it flags, it’s never for very long. There’s always a tennis match in which Wood bounds across the net as a giant ball just on the horizon. The tone is almost balletic in places – and not just because he’s wearing a tutu. A cathartic ending caps off one of the oddest, most original and entertaining hours you’re likely to spend in a theatre.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Beating McEnroe Show Info

Directed by Jamie Wood. Wendy Hubbard and Ellie Griffiths

Cast includes Jamie Wood




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