tue 23/07/2024

Cash Cow, Hampstead Theatre review - timely look at pushy tennis parents | reviews, news & interviews

Cash Cow, Hampstead Theatre review - timely look at pushy tennis parents

Cash Cow, Hampstead Theatre review - timely look at pushy tennis parents

Are the family of a flamed-out prodigy at (double) fault?

Break point: Ade (Jonathan Livingstone) and Nina (Phoebe Pryce) debate their next moveRobert Day

“How much does she owe us?” So ponder the now estranged parents of a former tennis pro, as they calculate the very literal investment they’ve put into their daughter.

This probing new play from Oli Forsyth – well timed for Queens and Wimbledon – examines the consequences of achievement by proxy and a familial relationship that becomes transactional.

Construction worker Ade (Jonathan Livingstone) and carer Nina (Phoebe Pryce, both pictured below) think tennis is “for other people”, but when their daughter excels at a free trial, they encourage her to pursue it – and a leisure activity soon becomes an all-consuming family business. Forsyth’s play jumps back and forth in time, showing the build-up of a career and the grim aftermath: life seemingly over at 32, and the once over-involved parents reduced to leaving pleading messages with an assistant.Cash Cow, Hampstead TheatreA zippy, 90-minute two-hander with numerous short scenes, Cash Cow often resembles a riveting tennis match, with competing arguments thwacked over the net. We quickly see how the parents go from novices to insta-experts who undermine coaches and analyse stats, and who upend their lives as they move first to Liverpool, near a top academy, and later to the US – gradually shedding friends, family, jobs, and any identity outside of their offspring.

Most effectively, the tennis player herself is also represented by the two actors, showing how they have subsumed her – and also how they bulldoze past obvious warning signs (panic attacks, self-harming) while she listlessly replies “Yeah” and “OK” to their parenting-cum-coaching. There’s little sense of the burning passion or tough competitive mentality that make a pro athlete, edging this tough-love support into something more coercive.

Cash Cow, Hampstead TheatreThere are drawbacks to the play’s structure. By the time the two timelines come close to meeting, we can fill in most gaps ourselves, so some scenes feel unnecessary and create lulls, and the ending is too telegraphed. In addition, some of the bigger moments just need longer to breathe; in particular, a major bombshell about an abusive coach needs far more unpacking, and the warped logic that leads to legal action and tabloid tell-alls feels rushed. It might also have been interesting to dig further into the class element of a still elitist sport, and the specific experiences of a female athlete.

However, Forsyth does illustrate the dark side of the game, including the drug-taking, the lost childhood, and the enormous expense. Ade and Nina have to fund practically everything until they finally reach that professional milestone – hundreds of thousands that they, unlike more affluent families, don’t have to spare – which makes their desire to see some kind of return on investment understandable, if grim in how it damages the relationship with their daughter. Yet if she’d succeeded, would it all have been worth it – in every sense?

Director Katie Pesskin wisely keeps the focus on the couple, creating an uneasy intimacy. Transitions are swift and the blocking changed up just enough to maintain engagement, while Anna Reid’s spare, white line-bordered playing space nods to a tennis court, and also begins to feel like an inescapable cell. Livingstone and Pryce, convincing as a gradually fractured couple, both excellently convey their characters’ contradictions – encouraging but judgemental, self-sacrificing but mercenary, well-meaning but egotistical – as well as exhibiting the competitive instinct and drive less apparent in their daughter.

With interest in the parents of high-achievers ongoing (Andy Murray’s unfairly vilified mum Judy still has an eye-rolling “pushy mum. allegedly” in her Twitter bio), Forsyth’s piece should certainly find a keen audience. Not quite a tournament-winning smash, but a provocative lob into this summer’s tennis-adjacent entertainment.


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