Theatre review: Beating Mcenroe | Leviathan

Jamie Wood's 50-minute show on the influence of Borg and McEnroe. Picture: Contributed
Jamie Wood's 50-minute show on the influence of Borg and McEnroe. Picture: Contributed
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BACK IN the late 1970s, Bjorn Borg bestrode the world tennis scene like a colossus, winning five successive Wimbledon Men’s Championships, and thrilling millions of armchair sports fans with his Nordic coolness, short white shorts, and apparently invincible skill.

Beating Mcenroe

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh



Oran Mor, Glasgow


Until, that is, his reign was ended by a fiery New York kid called John McEnroe, whose outraged cries of “You cannot be serious” rang around the world.

The children who were rising five back then are 40 now; and one of them is writer and performance artist Jamie Wood, whose brief meditation on masculinity, and on the role of those mighty tennis stars in shaping his childhood ideas of how to be a man, plays at the Traverse this weekend. Performed by Wood in a cosy jumpsuit and lion hat – soon discarded in favour of a white vest and tutu – Beating McEnroe is a light-touch patchwork of childhood memory, beguiling graphics, thoughtful text, stylised dance-like movement, and slightly over-insistent audience participation, all put together in the hand-knitted and intensely self-conscious style currently fashionable among Fringe performance artists.

At just over 50 minutes, Wood’s show is too laid-back for my taste, long on ironic self-awareness, short on substance and drive. The subject, though – a gentle boy’s struggle with the competitive element of conventional masculinity – is a strong and touching one; and although it’s a slight evening for a full-whack ticket price, there’s undoubtedly a growing market for this kind of participatory theatre, where the artist involved doesn’t so much present a show, as invite us, very gently, to start rehearsing one with him.

Leviathan opens in the back garden of a council house in Wales; there’s a railway passing by, a view of the mountain, and a woman called Maeve – late fifties, sharp-tongued, unstoppable – trying to hold things together. The main problem is her daughter Karen, a psychiatric nurse who has slumped into a catatonic state following an incident at work, of which we gradually learn through her fierce internal monologues. And then there’s Karen’s beautiful twentysomething daughter Hannah, who has clearly inherited her grandmother’s feisty spirit, but whose life is also shadowed by anxiety, unwanted pregnancy, and worse.

It’s not always easy to watch, this piece from Sherman Cymru of Wales, the first 2015 Play, Pie And Pint show to transfer to the Traverse next week. Written by emerging Welsh playwright Matthew Trevannion, it lays on the misery just one layer too thick; and in Rachel O’Riordan’s slow-moving production, Maeve and Hannah shuffle awkwardly around Karen’s armchair, rather than whirling around it like twin storms round a vortex.

What’s striking, though, is the ferocious quality of Trevannion’s writing, veering from sharp comic dialogue to exquisite psychological observation; and then plunging into the strange, almost epic poetry of Karen’s monologues, as she longs to merge into the stuff of nature. And for all its slightly awkward twists and turns, the play offers three beautiful, haunting performances from Siw Hughes, Claire Cage and Gwawr Loader, as three women without men, except where men push destructively into their lives, leaving Maeve to get on with picking up the pieces.

Seen on 12.03.15 and 09.03.15

• Final performances at Traverse and Oran Mor today; Leviathan is at the Traverse from 17-21 March