Marco Pantani: The Pirate

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

three stars

On February 14, 2004, the Italian cycling legend, Marco Pantani, died alone in a Rimini hotel. He was just 34. The debris around him included boxes of anti-depressants, the toxicology report found cocaine in his system – was it an accidental overdose? Suicide, maybe? His mother, to this day, alleges her son was murdered.

Stuart Hepburn’s play, Marco Pantani: The Pirate, stops short of a decisive verdict on the cyclist’s demise but he does give us heavily-detailed chapter and evocative verse of how Pantani rose to fame – and how he fell from grace. At times, the litany of races entered, races won – or crashed out of – is a bit of an uphill plod if competitive cycling isn’t something you follow closely.

Where the writing, and the performances, really catch fire is when Mick Cullen’s Pantani – astride his (static) Bianchi bike – describes what it feels like to speed round sharp bends and, his personal forte, zoom up steep hills. Flanked by his mother Tonina (Janet Coulson) and his Grandfather (Tom McGovern), Pantani is heroic in his determination to win, pushing himself physically – even as, mentally, he became increasingly fragile.

Hepburn’s scripted flashbacks reference Tonina’s own instability – mostly through high-pitched, nervy repetitions of certain phrases, her self-harming mantra ‘metal on flesh’ especially. Coulson tries valiantly to put flesh on these meagre bones but like Tom McGovern – who alternates Grandfather’s hat with the dodgy doctor’s white coat – her function is primarily providing narrative context.

So it’s up to Cullen to engage us in Pantani’s all-consuming pursuit of victories, his naive swallowing of whatever the team doctor gave him, and his angry-anguished loss of everything he’d achieved because of unresolved doping scandals. Eyes blazing, Cullen champions the mettle in Pantani’s flesh, re-enacting the Pirate’s ride into cycling history – he won the Giro D’Italia and the Tour De France in 1998, the last cyclist to take both titles in the same year.