The house lights dim and an operatic overture blasts into the darkness. A man in a simple white tracksuit steps into the spotlight, arms raised in a champion’s salute. The crowd responds, cheering as if he has just stepped onto the winner’s podium.

Hew Parham may not look like a world-class athlete, but by the end of this bravura solo performance it feels as though we have witnessed the artistic equivalent of riding the Tour de France.

The show begins with a hilarious flash of historical context – the dawn of the bicycle and endurance cycling. We’re whisked through the cataclysmic chain of events that lead to Karl von Drais’ invention of the bicycle in the 19th century. Then we leap into the 20th century with the flash of inspiration between two French newspaper editors that sparked the Tour de France.

Parham’s comical newsreel ends in a French hotel room where he re-creates the telephone call received by elite cyclist Gino Bartali on a rest day during the 1948 Tour de France. It’s the Italian Prime Minister ordering him to win the race in order to save Italy from descending into civil war.

The humble heroics of Italian cycling legend Bartali is one of the two strands of narrative Parham expertly intertwines to tell this heart-warming story about cycling, masculinity and what it means to be a hero.

The second strand of the story, set in the present day, involves the seriously unheroic character of Hew. He is a depressed and struggling comic actor nursing a crippling case of envy about the success of his old school friend Jake Johnson. Now a professional cyclist and married to the woman Hew loved when they were growing up together, Jake represents everything the actor wants but doesn’t have. In Hew’s eyes, Jake has stolen his life.

Hew Parham in Symphonie of the Bicycle. Photo: Tracey Leigh

After Jake and Hew’s paths unexpectedly collide, Hew sets out on a journey, determined to transform himself into the man he was always meant to be. Under the guidance of former cycling champion turned self-help guru Gavin Chestnut and his dubious methodology, Hew begins training. He vows to compete in a long-distance bike ride, defeat his nemesis and, in doing so, reclaim the life that was meant to be his.

The brilliance of this show isn’t just in Parham’s incredible feat of solo performance. His writing is equally outstanding. Using the structure of an orchestral symphony as the basis for his storytelling, he weaves together his dual narratives, cutting between the stories of these vastly dissimilar men in a way that gradually illuminates the elements that connect them.

We see Hew’s training and the melodrama of dragging this self-doubt-riddled man to race-readiness contrasted with Gino’s physical and psychological strength as he struggles from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Italy to become one of the most celebrated cyclists of the 20th century. While Hew is moaning and eating cheese, Gino is witnessing the rise of fascism in Europe and cunningly finding ways to save Jewish people during World War II.

Accompanied on stage by only a bike, a chair and a washing basket, Parham embodies every character, giving voice to even the most fleeting personas in these two storylines. Director Chris Drummond championed this piece during his tenure at Brink Productions and he is once again by Parham’s side, brilliantly guiding the show’s current journey with the State Theatre Company.

The simplicity of the staging – one man in a white tracksuit against a black stage – is cunningly deceptive. The ease with which the audience follows Parham’s lightning-swift changes of time and character is buttressed by the brilliance of the sound and lighting design. Will Spartalis creates an impressive soundscape using both music and background recordings to signal the slips between timeframes, and Wendy Todd’s inventive lighting design works seamlessly with the sound to do all the work of frequent set changes, letting our imaginations paint the backdrop while keeping our focus on Parham and his storytelling.

This show is simply remarkable, with Parham’s storytelling working alongside his exceptional comic timing to maintain a racing momentum for the entire 80-minute performance. While his delivery is exemplary, it’s the clever structure, emotional heft and thematic power of the show’s content that deserves special mention. In a world that magnifies narcissism and promotes a shallow, highly masculine view of “heroism”, Parham astutely disrupts this definition. In his paring of two cyclists separated by time, place and temperament, he delves into our perceptions of masculinity and success, quietly proposing that heroism and fame are not necessarily connected.

You don’t have to wear lycra or know your derailleur from your drivetrain to appreciate this cleverly written, hilarious and emotionally astute performance. Symphonie of the Bicycle is a brilliant example of South Australian talent creating world-class theatre.

Symphonie of the Bicycle is being presented at the Space Theatre until May 25.

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