Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Rags-to-rags story of the David that dared to tackle the Goliath.
Football started life as a game for hooligans played by a mob pretty much without rules and without restriction in terms of the numbers on each side. It survived as such for hundreds of years. Then, in the 19th Century, along came the toffs, codified it, rebranded it as Association Football and the game became a rich man’s plaything.
The flagship competition, the Football Association Challenge Cup, quickly attracted the interest of just about every public school and wandering side in the country. Indeed, Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup in 1872. The annual challenge was fast becoming the exclusive pervue of the noblesse oblige when along came Darwen, a team of millworkers and a couple of professional players from Scotland. A working men’s team. With a woman organising it. From up north. Where they spoke funny, had no money and struggled to fund a team. But they could play the game.
The Giant Killers is the story of Darwen’s foray into the FA Challenge Cup of 1879, written by Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright and based around, I assume, the very detailed and well-researched book on the Darwen adventure that was published in 2012 by the well-regarded sports journalist and author, Keith Dewhurst. Part social history, part football narrative, we are taken on an action-packed, tightly scripted and choreographed emotional roller-coaster of a journey.
Four actors take on this particular challenge, playing all the parts with considerable vigour. At times you feel as if you are listening to a TV football commentary, such is the stream of breathless prose that cascades all around us. An authentic, brown leather football is moved around the stage, a goal appears from nowhere, chalk scoreboards appear on the sides of the set which itself is cleverly constructed allowing its four cubed columns to serve also as a house, pub, crowd and stadium.
Direction by Natalie-Ann Downs is tight and assured and the acting is universally top drawer, capturing the adrenalin, ecstasy, anguish, anger, frustration and, occasionally, sadness and disappointment of the lives and loves of those involved in pursuing the seemingly impossible dream of unseating the establishment.
Darwen may have eventually succumbed to their nemesis, The Old Etonians, but they helped change the game forever, opening it up to become the mass participation sport of today. And whilst football may, once again, be the plaything of rich men, teams can still dream of doing the impossible. Remember Leicester City? Unfancied and unfashionable, they proved unstoppable as they toppled those toffs in the Premier League in 2016. The spirit of Darwen lives on, well into the 21st Century.