Cheating in sport, either through illicit doping or more radical methods have, sadly become endemic. Drug testing has had to become the norm because we cynically can’t believe gold medalists and record breakers have achieved success purely by their own merit.
So well done to journalist-turned-dramatist, Jonathan Maitland for making the issue the subject of his latest play.
Deny Deny Deny, which opened last night at London’s Park Theatre, is an incredibly worthy, well researched and originally presented piece – but it bored me to tears.
I hate saying that because I have been a huge supporter of Maitland’s work. Dead Sheep and An Audience with Jimmy Savile were extraordinary. But, as earnest as this latest play is, it is impossible to have any sympathy, empathy or care for any of its four main characters.
None of them are fleshed out. They’re clichés, from the aggressive, ambitious coach who grooms her athletes to win at any cost, to the “investigative journalist” who makes a rank-amateur stab at uncovering the scandal, to the two girl runners competing for gold.
You can’t fault Maitland’s facts, and the production is a feast of soundbite quotes about sport, cheating and winning. He’s obviously a sports fan and cares deeply, as a reporter and a follower, for its future.
Yet there’s no drama, nothing to get you excited. It was sermonising and, for me, fails to leave the starting blocks.
Deny Deny Deny is like watching an online exposé from the Sunday Times investigative team which drones on for far to long. You get the gist in the first few minutes – the rest is padding.
It’s all incredibly important stuff, and we should sit up and take notice, but it just doesn’t engage as a play.
Juma Sharkah plays Eve, a young girl we first meet practising her gold medal signature wave in readiness for when she’s the world’s number one sprinter.
Tom (Daniel Fraser), a journo working for an online sports website, and her boyfriend, turns up with her energy drink (containing the herb fenugreek – not banned by the sport’s ruling body at the time of writing) and a tub of blueberries. Eve is, if nothing else a martyr to her sport.
But she’s not improving and it’s time to find a new coach. She sets her sights on Rona Hoffman, an aggressive, direct, ambitious expert who already coaches a rising star, Joyce (Shvorne Marks).
Their first meeting doesn’t go well. “You can’t run,” she tells the shocked young athlete. “You should be a butterfly, not a battering ram”.
By the next scene Eve is part of Rona’s stable and competing against Joyce in a minor event. When it doesn’t go well the pair have a brutally explicit conversation that changes Eve’s life forever.
“It’s possible to win clean, isn’t it?” asks the naive running star.
“If you don’t take it, you won’t make it. Cheating is a national industry. You are fighting the whole system. They’ve tried to clean the stable but there’s too much shit,” says Rona.
She knows a guy who runs a big pharmaceutical company. They’ve got a product – completely legal and untraceable – that will boost her performance. After initial resistance Eve sells her soul to the devil.
Deny Deny Deny lays the blame for cheating firmly at the feet of the coaches and trainers who push their protégés to impossible lengths to achieve success.
Its writer also takes a pop at journalists (of course, it’s almost a national pastime among dramatists working for stage or screen) – yet it is the press that ultimately expose this tawdry shortcut to gold.
Rona (Zoe Waites) tells Eve that a study among sports-people revealed that the majority would risk death if it meant domination of their sport.
Through the production we see Eve turn from a lively young runner into an angry, abusive automaton who believes herself invincible. She’s the first genetically modified athlete whose success has been created in a chemistry lab.
The whole play is resoundingly authentic but its cast sound as though they are voicing party lines. Polly Sullivan’s austere, high-tech set is quite clever, but largely the lycra-clad runners have an empty stage to work with.
An important play but, dramatically, for me, the weakest and least commercial of Jonathan Maitland’s work.
Deny Deny Deny runs at Park Theatre (without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs) until December 3.
Deny Deny Deny
Deny Deny Deny is important, earnest and well-researched by writer Jonathan Maitland but fails to take theatrical gold as a stage play.