The White Bike is a new play by Tamara Von Werthern, that follows Isabelle, a young Hackney Mum, as she cycles her regular commute to work. Her mundane observations blend with memories in a taut sequence that is energetically driven by Jospehine Starte's performance. While Starte delivers most of the text, the ensemble support her with cameos and fine-tuned choreography that cleverly combines movement, sound and light to fill the bold circular arch that frames the stage.
It is a mesmerizing sequence that brings the sensual realities of commuter cycling to the stage- the cold hands, the familiar faces, the stream of consciousness thinking- I found myself cherishing this simple celebration of those familiar precious pleasures. However, the knot in my stomach grew tighter as the fatal accident portended by the title of the play was drew near. As a regular cyclist, I take no delight in the prospect of seeing a dramatisation of a fatal bike accident. When it happens, the descriptions of Isabelle being slowly crushed to death by the wheel of an HGV haunted me for days, and the inevitable police visit to her husband, was devastating. However, although Von Werthern has not softened the blow of Isabelle’s death, she has managed to make it watchable. A clever supernatural twist set the raw pain at an angle- it helped me to see beyond the unthinkable and grasp a bigger meaning beyond overwhelming emotion. This play is not about an unusual tragedy- it is about a tragedy that is all too common on our roads. Throughout the play Isabelle's numerous near misses on the road have made it clear that the roads are fundamentally unsafe. Isabelle's casual reflections on pollution, congestion and climate change are mingled with her chore list, observations and musings, but they create a context that acknowledges that while cycling is risky, it is a positive choice that is beneficial to the cyclist and the city, not an act of recklessness. We should be able to cycle safely. The great strength of this play is that you feel the depth of tragedy, the sheer injustice of loosing so many cyclists on our streets. But Von Werthern harnesses this devastating clarity into an optimistic ending, as we see Isabelle’s husband and daughter slowly learn to cope, and attend the 2013 “Die In” protest outside the TfL offices in London. Isabelle maintains a reassuring presence on stage after her death, and the ensemble use small LED bike lights to create a constellation connecting the characters, representing the importance of solidarity and hope.
It is hard to describe the play without it coming across like propaganda or theatre in education, but the production manages to swerve these simplifications and is a powerful, beautifully executed piece about the intolerable injustice being carried out on our streets today.
Von Werthern was motivated to write this piece by the death of a 29 year old woman called Eilidh Cairns. Cairns was killed by an HGV driver who had defective vision; but shockingly he was not charged and was allowed to continue to drive after her death. 15 months later, he killed a 97 year old Holocaust Survivor on a pedestrian crossing. HGVs are extremely dangerous, and so is the appalling lack of decent bike lanes in Britain today.
I have found there is a disconcerting sense of acceptance in the UK that roads are dangerous, as if it is an immutable truth. But it does not have to be.
We need to demand more, as it is the right of everyone to feel safe on our streets. I really hope The White Bike is performed again and again all over the country, and I want everyone to see it.
You can see The White Bike until Saturday 30th September at The Space, Isle Of Dogs https://space.org.uk/event/the-white-bike/