The rule of an addict that refuses to admit their problem – deny, deny, deny. Whether a legal substance or not, all of the addiction programmes say that the will to change has to come from within, from that additional admission, “I have a problem.” But all too often in sport, the desire to win overrules the professional responsibility to play fair. As coach Rona (Zoë Waites) so aptly highlights, the problem is in Goldman’s dilemma – 50% of athletes would sacrifice their health, even their lives, for that chance of sporting immortality.
Jonathan Maitland’s world premiere of Deny, Deny, Deny is a candid examination of choice, influence and the inexplicable pull of the Olympic gold medal. Eve (Juma Sharkah) is a promising young athlete with big dreams and a big heart, but whilsy partner Tom (Daniel Fraser) believes in her, she is consistently out-performed by rival Joyce (Shvorne Marks). Ex-professional sportswoman turned coach Rona (Waites) spots potential, not just for a world class sprinter but a new test subject for some pioneering gene editing research to improve performance. Of course, it isn’t illegal and can’t possibly be compared to the dirty, back-handed tactics of steroids and growth hormone; this is clean, medical, scientific research of the purist kind to strip away that which is insufficient to be the best. Designer performance for the ultimate champion.
Tim Mitchell lights Polly Sullivan’s set with crisp luminescence – strip lighting that emphasises both the clinical and the cold. Waites reflects this most effectively in Rona – fiercely intelligent, single-minded and so in control that she believes herself above the concept of cheating. One look from Waites is sufficient to stop anyone dead in their tracks. As Deny, Deny, Deny progresses, the audience can see the cogs turning in her mind, the kernels of her plan and her true intention unfolding as she deftly sinks her claws into naïve, sweet Eve (Sharkah) and turns her against her partner and the world she once knew in the pursuit of greatness. But Sharkah’s performance is stilted, going through the motions in the first half only to completely shut down in the second. Whilst in line with her character, the latter half is more than devoid of feeling, it’s devoid of performance.
Rival Joyce (Marks) is the stereotypical arrogant athlete, strutting around stage like a prize hen, her feathers ruffled by another challenger for her supremacy. Typically this character represents the evil, but Maitland gives Joyce moral supremacy as well, which Marks milks to full effect. She spouts about how she is concerned for Eve when clearly she wants to make sure she goes back to being on top, her rightful place on a level playing field. Faithful partner Tom (Fraser) mimics his girlfriend’s personality switch as the play progresses, albeit with more compassion, regret and hurt. A lack of stage time simply doesn’t give Fraser the chance to expand his potential here.
The only way to achieve your dream is to cheat, however it’s not cheating because it doesn’t break a rule and everyone else is attempting unfair advantage. A topical message that has pervaded and degraded the name of sportsmanship over the last decade, when performance enhancing substances are all the more common. Deny, Deny, Deny is above the dirty, shaded tactics that doping describes, it transcends into medical research, which should be praised for the possibilities it brings. Yet in a play that aims to convey a warped sense of ethics and right, the overall performance is verging on lacklustre. Competent, yes. But not gold medal worthy.
Writer: Jonathan Maitland
Director: Brendan O’Hea
Producer: Denise Silvey
Design: Polly Sullivan; Tim Mitchell (Lighting); Mic Pool (Sound)
Cast: Sarah Finigan; Daniel Fraser; Shvorne Marks; Juma Sharkah; Zoë Waites
Runs until 3 December at the Park Theatre, London