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Theatres Online / 20 Jun 18

Theatre of dreams: The 11 Best Plays About Football

Patrick Marber has scored a hit with The Red Lion at the National Theatre. Here’s a first XI of stage dramas inspired by the beautiful game

Although football is England’s most popular team game, it has been an infrequent subject for theatre. This is probably because it’s hard to make even fit young actors resemble professional athletes; a ball kicked on stage is at risk of hitting the audience; and women and Americans, key customers of the medium, are judged by some to be resistant to the subject.

So The Red Lion – the Patrick Marber play about a non-league team – joined a small squad of dramas when it opened last week at the National Theatre. There may soon be new signings: when I interviewed Richard Bean recently, the writer of One Man, Two Guvnors and England People Very Nice was brimming with the possibility of writing about the corruption allegations engulfing Sepp Blatter, outgoing president of the world football body Fifa.

It’s already possible, though, to put together a competitive starting 11 from existing examples, even leaving a few options on the bench, such as Alan Plater’s Confessions of a City Supporter (Hull Truck, 2004), which demonstrated the difficulty of football plays finding resonance away from their home locale, and Marie Jones’ and Martin Lynch’s Dancing Shoes: The George Best Story (2014), which is being revived in Northern Ireland this year.

My selection principle was that plays should be original, leaving out adaptations of books such as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch or Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and also excluding the biggest football musical – Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game (Cambridge theatre, London, 2000-01) – which perhaps proved the commercial limitations of the genre by, unusually for an ALW show, not going to Broadway. As many goalkeepers believe to be the case, the No 1 shirt in this lineup goes to the star choice.

11. Old Big ’Ead in the Spirit of the Man (Nottingham Playhouse and tour, 2005-06)
As a result of the three teams with which the manager Brian Clough is most associated, tribute dramas find a willing audience in Derby and Nottingham, while tragedies about him play well in Leeds. (The Red Ladder theatre company is currently developing one.) In this Nottingham comedy by Stephen Lowe, the ghost of the big-thinking, big-drinking coach appears to a playwright. A second Lowe script about Cloughie, The Devil’s League, sadly remains unstaged because the Derby Playhouse went bust during production.

10. The Christmas Truce (RSC, 2014-15)
As part of the centenary commemorations of the start of the first world war, Phil Porter fictionalised the fabled kickabout between British and German soldiers in no man’s land during a yuletide ceasefire. But, as is often also the case with TV football coverage, the long buildup to the match struggled to find interesting things to say and, for staging and health and safety reasons, most of the football took place unseen in the wings.

9. Tull (Bolton Octagon, 2013)
Phil Vasili’s play affectionately and intelligently revives the short but extraordinary life of Walter Tull (1888-1918). The first black outfield player in British professional football – for Spurs and then Northampton Town – he made history a second time as the first non-white officer in the British army before being killed in France during the first world war. A memorial to him now stands on Walter Tull Way, the road leading to Northampton’s Sixfields stadium.

8. Elton John’s Glasses (Watford Palace theatre and tour, 1997)
David Farr’s Hornbyesque drama features a Watford supporter dealing with personal crises while obsessively rewatching footage of his team almost winning the FA Cup in 1984 and developing a conspiracy theory involving Sir Elton’s spectacles. The identity of the club’s most famous supporter and sometime chairman allowed a canny title that gave the work a wider life among theatre-goers who thought it might be a pop bio-drama.

7. Jumpers for Goalposts (Bush Theatre, London, and tour, 2013)
Wittily exploring an aspect of the game under-covered by sports pages, Tom Wells sets his drama in an LGBT league, as Barely Athletic prepare for a grudge match with Tranny United. Wells learned from earlier plays about footballers (see 6, 4 and 2) by keeping the action in the changing room rather than on the pitch.

6. Red Saturday (Hampstead theatre, London, and tour, 1983-84)
Martin Allen (not to be confused with the veteran manager currently at Barnet FC) is now best known as a key writer for Coronation Street. However, this classy stage play won him the Samuel Beckett award (though Beckett was more of a cricket fan). Its off-pitch settings – hotel room, team coach, changing room – stage conversations between a rookie player and an old pro, given verisimilitude in the first production by the casting of John Salthouse, an actor who had played professionally for Crystal Palace.

5. An Evening With Gary Lineker (Vaudeville, London, and tour, 1991-92)
Arthur Smith’s and Chris England’s comedy remains the most commercially successful English football play, possibly because its plot cleverly incorporated the frustrations of any football-phobic women dragged to the theatre. A man on holiday in Italy plots to watch the vital England v Germany semi-final at Italia ’90 instead of spending the quality time that his girlfriend demands. Since having his name in West End lights, Lineker has married an actor, Danielle Bux, and become a regular theatre-goer.

4. The Pass (Royal Court, London, 2014)
Set in three hotel rooms over 13 years, John Donnelly’s smart drama examines football’s frequently confused attitudes to sexuality and race through the relationship between two players who come up through the same club. Only the busy diary of Russell Tovey, who played a star keeping a secret from his team-mates, can have prevented John Tiffany’s production so far playing extra time somewhere.

3. Zigger Zagger (National Youth Theatre, 1967)
One solution to the problem of showing football convincingly on stage is to concentrate on the fans or, in the case of Peter Terson’s drama, hooligans. Most English men over 40 have either seen – or been in – a school production of this play. Frequent academic and amateur revivals continue because the vices identified in the game by Terson – a tendency to off-pitch violence and on-pitch greed – have not gone away.

2. The Game (Liverpool Playhouse, 1914)
This forgotten curiosity by Harold Brighouse, Lancastrian writer of Hobson’s Choice, was rediscovered in a Canadian college library and excitingly revived by Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company in 2012. A struggling northern football team seek solvency by selling a star young player to rivals (a plot line that also appears in Marber’s The Red Lion). Most startling, though, is that, a century ago, Brighouse addressed the issue of corruption, as the young hero comes under pressure to throw a match. An enterprising Swiss repertory theatre should put on a gala performance for President Blatter.

1. Sing Yer Heart Out For the Lads (National Theatre, 2002-04)
In common with An Evening With Gary Lineker, Roy Williams’ play is set during an England v Germany game, although one that took place 10 years later and is used to more political effect. As a pub football team watch the match in the hostelry, questions of national identity, masculine aggression and the racism endemic in both the nation and its national game are thrillingly kicked about. This is the Pelé of football plays: the one against which subsequent generations will be measured.

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Posted By: Phil Marsden

Blog Editor