There are some pleasing rallies, the odd ace and a pile of unforced errors in Grand Slam, the latest play by The Spectator's theatre critic, Lloyd Evans. The piece is a kind of satiric follow-up to Wimbledon, the movie rom-com in which a low-ranked British player managed to power his way to the men's final, having found new balls through his affair with a rising American star.
The play purports to offer the same type of wish-fulfilment fantasy to a public that has been starved of a British singles triumph at the tournament since Betty Stove's game disintegrated in the last set of the 1977 women's final, allowing Virginia Wade to pick up the trophy from a grimly unenthusiastic monarch. Evans, though, pokes more knowing and mischievous fun at this collective desire. The trouble is that, in his attempt to create an alternative reality in which the curse of the Brits is briefly lifted, he has to concoct a scenario with more holes than a tennis racket.
Like the Paul Bettany character in Wimbledon, Madeleine Rochester is a former great white hope who is now on the brink of retirement. Entering the tournament on a wild card, this Monaco-based posh totty needs a temporary replacement for her injured bodyguard. Enter Cedric, a craggily attractive East End hardnut, and the scene looks set for a mix of Miss Julie and Lady Chatterley's Lover with some savage cross-court passes.
Madeleine quickly intuits that her bit of rough has a criminal past. It's never entirely clear why a bodyguard agency is prepared to employ a man who has done time for GBH (or worse). But then it's equally hard to fathom why Madeleine needs such round-the-clock protection since she's no Sharapova and, indeed, is pathetically grateful for the attentions of her traffic warden stalker, Neville. The latter sends her items of pink clothing – first a head-band and then more intimate items. The superstitious Madeleine is given a boost by these garments and wins her opening match against the number six seed. Can her luck hold?
Evans' two-hander gets comic mileage out of the mismatch between its pair of opposites. Portrayed with just the right degree of hoity-toity flightiness and underlying vulnerability by the lovely, lanky Rachel Pickup, Madeleine is a mass of New Age neuroses about food, shrinks and alternative remedies. She recommends the "dolphin-model" diet to Cedric who prefers his burgers to brain-enhancing plankton. Deep down, in fact, so does she – and the play puckishly traces the growing envy of this bored, circuit-weary sportswoman for her very basic bodyguard. Sam Spruell's likeable cockney pillar of political incorrectness gets to deliver most of the best lines and he does so with a deliciously dour flair.
Tamara Harvey, who staged Nicholas de Jongh's Plague Over England, directs a sprightly production. It would be unfair to give away the devious twists and turns by which Madeleine's progress to the semi-finals remains unimpeded, despite an epic drunken binge and an unscheduled shag. But the play contrives to be excitement-free. Each of Madeleine's victories is presented as brisk commentary on the final points. A dramatist such as Roy Williams, who tackled football and British racial prejudice in Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, can build up the pressure by creating tension between onstage action and offstage match. In Grand Slam, the only time that happens is when Madeleine nods off while watching a grunting female rally on DVD.
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