False Start review – sprinter’s nightmare makes for pacy theatre

A gun is fired and the agonised figure before us reels to the ground while three adversaries look on in cool detachment. It’s a scene not from a western but the athletics track. This physical theatre production turns the sprinter’s dreaded false start into a psychological horror show, as four performers square off against each other. A hypnotic choreography is created from stretching, tuck jumps and other warmups, precise foot strikes and sporting bravado, with the athletes raising their arms and bidding us to rally them.

Total containment … False Start.
Total containment … False Start. Photograph: Raoul Gilibert

Ingrid von Wantoch Rekowski’s production, part of the fringe’s Belgian Selection, opens by turning the block start into a ritual, as Ninon Pérez’s hands form a bridge with her fingertips caressing the floor while the ball of her foot pivots behind. This ensemble often moves in unison but any notion of togetherness is disrupted by their total containment; you sense each competitor’s isolation even when they touch. Staged at close quarters in Summerhall, it has an immediacy impossible in a sporting stadium: shoes squeak, breath quickens, eyes burn with concentration.

There’s a pulsing electronica score that incorporates clips of sports commentary and mantras as if they’re clubby lyrics: “time to believe, time to deliver”. The high-energy music and Jan Maertens’ spectral lighting give these bodies a robotic air: they glisten with sweat but also glitch, increasingly so until a series of climactic malfunctions. Voiceovers fleetingly suggest the pressure they’re under: all those months of training that lead to a 10-second race, reaching the starting line only to find instant disqualification for moving a split second too soon.

It’s a shame that there is no further commentary with athletes opening up about their false-start experiences or expanding on the weight of expectations. You crave more humanness; Pérez, Jeanne Dailler, Pierre Gervais and Laurent Staudt are compelling performers but none of these numbered sprinters emerges as a clearly defined character. While the show never quite succeeds as a metaphor for performance pressure beyond the sporting arena, it turns those 10 intense seconds into a fierce 55-minute rush.

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