You know what you’re getting with a Henry Naylor play by now. An authoritative voice, a well-researched story, an unapologetically political message, but a pedestrian construction. Games, his new work, fits straight into this model. It’s classy work, but clinical.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics are remembered largely for the achievements of Jesse Owens, but Games follows two more stories of athletic heroism in the face of Hitler’s propaganda machine. Helene Mayer and Gretel Bergmann were two Jewish German athletes, world-beaters who faced prejudice and discrimination once the Nazis gained power.
Naylor’s play is structurally identical to his previous work – two actors, Avital Lvova as Mayer and Tessie Orange-Turner as Bergmann, deliver interspliced monologues, chunk after chunk, only occasionally interacting. Louise Skaaning’s production is straightforward and unshowy, unfolding on a bare stage backed by three red drapes.
It’s a compact, competent play that explores an important contemporary issue – the collision of politics and sport is high on the agenda after Trump’s outbursts at the NFL. But a work that’s so formally unadventurous is only ever going to have a limited impact.
Naylor can probably write plays like this in his sleep now. One longs for something a bit more daring.