Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Running With The Firm
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
"When you go undercover remember one thing, who you are… The film was I.D. The book is Running With the Firm and this is the true story told by the man himself. In 1995 Gary Oldman said to James Bannon: ‘We play at this, you did it for real, no second takes, you f*ck it up and your dead.’ In a unique theatrical event of authentic sheer bloody madness, you will experience first-hand what it was like to live your life undercover."
This play was first reviewed at the begining of the 2013 Fringe and again on the last night of the run. The first part of this review was written for the former, the final paragraphs for the latter and the rating was accordingly altered to reflect the change.
*** 6 August
Historians who study the Byzantine Empire, the successor-state of Rome, are often not sports fans. Which is a shame because they struggle to comprehend and to explain what happened in Constantinople during one week in January 532 AD. The Nika Riots were some of the worst in the memory of civilized man. 30,000 citizens would die in the uproar. The fate of the Emperor Justinian was in the gravest possible peril. Large areas of his capital would be ruined – leaving space for the Hagia Sophia to rise from the smouldering ashes. It was a turning point for Emperor and Empire. And the cause? Chariot racing at Constantinople’s enormous hippodrome where a murderous rivalry was played out between factions of fans. Their teams had come to stand as rallying points for bitter political and religious rivalries. Ochlocracy, or mob rule, has petrified the minds of rulers from Justinian’s day to ours.
In the UK in the 1980s violence at and around football matches had become a political as well as a policing concern. It was part of the cultural tapestry as the zeitgeist tape playing at the opening of Running With The Firm makes clear. Former undercover police officer James Bannon drifts out of the audience onto the stage of the Cabaret Bar, Zoo Southside. Here he will hold court for the next hour with the story of how he infiltrated one of football’s toughest hooligan gangs. Seldom have performance space and production been so well matched. Bannon is a natural raconteur with an old skool charm and the gift of the gab. For the past few days I’ve been reading his memoir of the same name in every spare moment I can find. The book’s pacy, streamlined narrative springs to life as the author revs into the high gears.
The stage show is not a straight rehearsed reading. Under the light but firm direction of Dermot Keaney, Bannon’s power to captivate is extended to a range and given an accuracy that would please any master gunner. Bannon wasn’t a ‘Gunner’. He was Millwall, the south London team whose fans had the fiercest reputation. The Millwall chant "No one likes us, we don’t care" screamed out of the stands in an age when political correctness appeared to be demonising the white working classes.
Bannon isn’t offering a scholarly review into the practical applications of the theories of Gustave Le Bon. He’s telling it like it was from the inside. The show’s most poignant moment deals with the deaths on 19 March 1988 of 2 out-of-uniform British Army Corporals by a mob in Belfast. “That was the moment” says Bannon, “that I grew up.” The hooligans whom he had befriended knew they were under surveillance. They knew that ‘The Old Bill’ were sending out spies and informants. If Bannon’s true purpose were known his fate could have been equally grim.
The editorial policy at FringeReview is to critique on the basis of the performance we see, not to reflect on what might have been or is to come as a production rolls out. Bannon and Keaney are on to a winner. The venue, the set, the lighting and sound are spot on. The soundtrack is apt and evocative. While the projected video could be a little larger, the best possible directorial frame has been installed with which to appreciate a master storyteller at work. What isn’t in place yet are the concerted high notes of which Bannon is so evidently capable. The effect of the Hillsborough Disaster is touched on but not explored to any depth. Bannon’s burning passion: to demonstrate that he was more than a schoolyard snitch and was serving to protect the public, is so clearly expressed in both the book and in his conversation, that its absence from the stage is jarring.
Running With The Firm is a script set to become a legend in its lifetime and beyond. It will become a casting favourite, especially with younger actors of an age as Bannon was then. It will be licensed and relicensed for performers in Fringe Festivals yet to come when I and others will boast that we were present at the birth of a classic. But right now it’s a classic still finding its feet.
*** 25 August
This show has come up the hard way. Night after night, audiences have been privileged to watch the blossoming of a great piece of storytelling aimed at shifting copies of a soon-to-be-published memoir into a play that stands proudly upon its own considerable merits. Plenty of cliches have found their way into the conversation about Edinburgh in August: world capital of fringe theatre; cultural crossroads; workshop of the world’s creative talent. The development of Running With the Firm over the past weeks breathes fresh life into each.
This is what Edinburgh and its audiences can do – force improvement. In this instance that improvement has rocketed a script and performer into orbit and on their way to the stars. The tangential barnacles are gone. The pace and power have been improved by a brilliant device spotlighting the life of a young policeman. And the end…the final line is now up there with “start of a beautiful friendship” or “nobody’s perfect”.
When the rest of the world starts to fall in love with this show it would be nice if the role of Edinburgh could be remembered. Chances are though that future audiences will be too busy being gobsmacked. Bravo!