Beating McEnroe

Life was so much simpler, back in 1980. It was USA versus the USSR, BBC versus ITV, Odeon cinemas versus ABC. While, in the white-short world of professional tennis, there were just two ways of being a man. You could aim to be Bjorn Borg: the embodiment of polite, Scandinavian cool, incredibly “fit”in all senses of the world. Or you could opt for being John McEnroe: an “over paid, over here” Yank brat always ready for a fight – who just also happened to be one of the greatest tennis players in the world.

If nothing else, Beating McEnroe pushes the envelope of what a one-man show can be, given the amount of audience interaction from the start, when Wood –an utterly engaging performer, albeit initially dressed and chanting like some hippy meditation centre host– starts throwing tennis balls to the crowd.

The then-six-year-old Jamie Wood worshiped Borg, so it came as a considerable shock when, at the US Open in 1980, McEnroe beat his Scandinavian rival for the first and –thanks to Borg’s unexpected retirement from the game – only time. That wasn’t how he felt heroic stories were supposed to go, and the underlying thread of the grown-up Wood’s meaningfully daft show is how that traumatic realisation would influence the rest of his life.

If nothing else, Beating McEnroe pushes the envelope of what a one-man show can be, given the amount of audience interaction from the start, when Wood –an utterly engaging performer, albeit initially dressed and chanting like some hippy meditation centre host– starts throwing tennis balls to the crowd.

Unpredictable, often hilarious, and at points unexpectedly life-affirming, Wood uses a mixture of monologue, cartoons, audio montages (of 1980s music and commentary), plus some frankly bizarre choreography to peel away the tennis-related aspects of his childhood and teenage years. At times searingly honest – his brother’s voice highlighting how Wood would always “crack on the verge of winning” their tennis matches –you’re not always sure if you should laugh or cry. And then Wood does something frankly fantastical – often with remarkably willing audience-member providing visuals and/or sound effects – which leaves you laughing loudly.

This isn’t Stand-Up, nor is it Drama. It does, however, borrow and mix aspects of both, creating an occasionally puzzling, incense-filled theatrical experience in which seeing Wood outline a tennis court with a trail of salt pouring from a container tied tightly to his head doesn’t seem that weird. If at times Wood’s theatrical concoction appears a bit random in its ingredients, the overall result certainly is not: this is a fascinating contemplation on masculinity and personal worth, and of the value in both individuality and teamwork.

And it’s funny with it.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

1980. Wimbledon. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe face each other across the net: the self-controlled champion and the impassioned upstart. An epic rivalry comes to a head. A six-year-old boy watches and learns.

Bjorn Borg epitomised tennis cool. He was everything Jamie and his brother wanted to be. Then John McEnroe came along and Jamie was beaten, along with his boyhood hero. Thirty years of torment and self-questioning later, Jamie is ready to face his greatest opponent in this hilarious solo show.