However bad the Edinburgh Fringe gets – however fatuous the plays and tiresome the actors – Murmur/Live Theatre’s new production “The Prize” fortifies you with the knowledge that it can never be as bad as the Olympics. We are only a day or so into the Fringe and the city is still subdued. Yet Tychy expects that Edinburgh will soon be inundated with intelligent people who are fleeing from the sheer tedium of the London Olympics. Are the authorities taking action? We are going to need emergency tents, food parcels, the Red Cross.
Maybe “The Prize” is simply set in the wrong city, but it tries to make the case that we are missing something important in Edinburgh without the Olympics, although exactly what remains persistently unspecified. Presently playing in Underbelly Bristo Square, the whole show seems to be verbatim theatre; the men behind it, Steve Gilroy and Richard Stockwell, have toured the country collecting stories from athletes as they were preparing for the London Olympics, and former athletes such as the sprinter Roger Black and the diver Charmian Rawlings whom the Games have since left behind. Some of these stories will not end on the stage, but out in the real Olympics, possibly whilst this play is in the process of unfolding.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to acquaint the audience with the premise behind the show, and the audience may feel faintly cheated as it dawns on them that this is not a work of fiction. The stories are not compelling enough to make one impressed to learn that they have been taken from life, but they have a quirkiness and human interest which would render them good fiction.
Each of the cast plays several different athletes, and the result is like a headache of a séance in which you struggle at times to follow which spirit is which. Yet the cast are very watchable and they fit well together. Seroca Davis and Chris Connel forge a particularly rewarding partnership as the Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike and her wryly loving husband, and the show indulges the pair further by casting them as an anxious mother and her impetuous disabled son.
Olympic athleticism may seem so morally dubious because it encourages an intense self-absorption, a fixation with one’s own body and its power. The mention of séances is perhaps apposite because many of these athletes seem to be trapped in a sort of hell, either consumed within themselves or lost in the bowels of some complex system of national assessment. They reach out to us with their stories to try and make us understand what it is like to be them, but it is impossible. I have no empathy or sympathy with these poor souls. “The Prize” is at its best when observing the love between Anne and her husband, or the girlish excitement of two young rowers. But these people are doomed from the start if they expect to be saved from life’s cruelty by any prize, even a golden one.