Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Revival of John Godber’s 1984 hit by Hull Truck Theatre sees the Wheatsheaf Arms (no wins in living memory) take on the mighty Cobblers (no defeats this side of the millennium, or the other for that matter) in a winner takes all grudge match.
Rugby League. Remember it well. Warming Bovril and hot pies. That’s the good bit. The rest of it involved standing about on sparsely populated terraces in the middle of darkest Yorkshire trying to keep warm and dry. Well at least we didn’t have to worry about the warm and dry bit for John Godber’s Up ‘N’ Under at the Assembly’s cavernous Music Room, even if the crowd was equal to what used to turn out on an average wet Wednesday winter’s night in Batley.
Former player Arthur Hoyle makes an ill-judged bet with his old rival Reg Welsh that he could train any team to beat Reg’s all-conquering Cobblers. Reg takes him at his word and challenges him to train up the Wheatsheaf Arms. Trouble is, the Wheatsheaf haven’t won a game in living memory. Their average turn out for a 7-a-side tournament is 4 players. One of them has a liking for playing in sandals, two are well past their sell-by date and the other one wants to be a dancer. Fitness training consists of five pints of John Smiths and fish and chips on the way home.
Arthur has no hope, until he happens upon the attractive daughter of a former rugby hero (played by Abi Titmuss) who is now running the local fitness centre. Suddenly young and old alike have an incentive to put in a few sessions down at the gym.
The script has been updated since it was first performed back in 1984 and this particular production is a skillfully edited version of the two-act original play . But much of its success should still lie with Godber’s carefully nuanced script. The early scenes focus on the changing room and local park and contain a lot of potentially hilarious banter. Those of you familiar with team sports will know that banter tumbles, cascades and above all flows. Remarks overlap, there is a lot of laughter and noise which is punctuated by the odd silence. It is certainly not the one-dimensional “line, pause, line” erudition that this group of actors delivered. It is not as if they lacked experience either – their CVs reveal this sort of show to be in their “sweet spot”, as sportsmen term it.
But, to continue the cliches, it’s a game of two halves and once we arrived at the big match itself, the players seemed to move into gear and, as a result, rescued the show. The recreation of the game was cleverly executed with the six players (trainer Arthur and fitness coach Vicky joining the four other lads) playing the part of both teams through the simple expedient of the back of their shirts representing the Cobblers and the front the Wheatsheaf Arms. The resultant choreography was well executed. We had some neat moves, some slow motion replays, goal kicking, tension but above all some much needed energy and pace as the game built to its last kick climax.
In terms of the players, Abi Titmuss is the big draw and she just about acquits herself. Of the rest, William Ilkley as Arthur and Robert Angell as Phil are solid if uninspiring but the rest of the team lacks the necessary vision to carry this off. It just goes to show, no matter how good the script and the directing (and they are good), if the actors don’t bring it to life you’ve no chance.
At least the second half had excitement, humour and energy, engaging the crowd in the game and giving them something to cheer and talk about on their way home. But its back to the training ground lads if you want to turn this into a winning team.