Pitch To Playhouse

Gareth Southgate is the most successful manager of the England men’s team since 1966 and he’s about to be the subject of a new play, called ‘Dear England’, at our National Theatre. Joseph Fiennes will star and the story will cover Southgate’s career from his infamous penalty miss for his country as a player to the present day. Tickets go on sale in a couple of weeks and it’s due to run through the summer.

If that news is already causing quite a stir in footballing and theatre circles, another ‘pitch to playhouse’ story has come to light recently in quieter fashion with the publication of ‘Pantomime Hero’ by Ian Ridley. It’s a book about Jimmy Armfield, Blackpool and England captain in the early 1960s but – as always – there’s a Forest connection and it starts in the cinema!

The Damned United’, based on David Peace’s book, is a 2009 film about the short-lived drama of Brian Clough’s time as manager of Leeds United. Criticised for numerous inaccuracies it nevertheless packs a punch, with Michael Sheen bestriding the screen as the main man. Films about football are hit and miss and pitch action can be laughable but cinema is entertainment and there are always stories to be told about the game. Titles range from the silent ‘Harry the Footballer’ in 1911, when a star player is kidnapped by the opposition, to ‘Fever Pitch’, a 1990s romantic comedy about an Arsenal fan. Much of the best screen material in recent years, though, has been documentary-style in such as ‘Messi’.

Staging football stories is usually more problematical than filming them but time was when play-going was more like match-day. Ask Shakespeare. Groundlings (standing room only) at his Globe theatre were as prone to a spot of rotten fruit throwing as to applauding. Cheering and booing might drown out the finest rendition of ‘To be or not to be …’. Rowdy crowds were a given.

Then times changed and theatre came to set itself well-apart from attending a game of football on the terraces. Like oil and water, they did not mix and came to represent opposite ends of the cultural and social spectrum: snobs and yobs. Yet they share so much. Entertainment is their business, both depend on attendances for existence and both are about live performances in public. Both are fuelled by unfolding drama.

As a boy, I saw no contradiction between enjoying watching Forest with my dad or the pantomime at the Theatre Royal with my mum. Admittedly, the boisterous slap-stick of a panto has something of the spirit of football about it but it was only later that I became aware of the social chasm that seemed to exist between being a play-goer and a football fan. Jimmy Armfield, it seems, saw how the play and the pitch could be fused to his advantage. He succeeded Clough as manager at Elland Road in 1974. Perhaps it was all that time spent living in Blackpool surrounded by performers treading the boards in nightly shows but he came up with an ingenious idea: pantomime!

Armfield inherited – not surprisingly – a dispirited and disaffected Leeds team. To restore morale, he had the club put on a panto, starring the players at the City Varieties Theatre. Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs Off’ Hunter as Cinderella, that kind of thing. So popular was it that the production ran for a week. More importantly, Leeds reached the European Cup Final in 1975, only losing to the might of Bayern Munich.

Recent theatre news rooted in football got me thinking about plays staged in Nottingham and particularly at Nottingham Playhouse. School trips to Shakespeare productions aside, I was a regular through teenage years before heading off to make a life elsewhere. I got drawn back to the place when ‘Old Big ‘Ead: The Spirit of the Man’ appeared in 2005. The play, by Stephen Lowe, pays homage to the achievements of Brian Clough through a surreal and laugh-out-loud script. It has him in heaven chatting to local heroes DH Lawrence and Lord Byron and adventuring with Robin Hood! Red and White scarves and shirts draped balconies and backs of seats at performances to make the auditorium look like the City Ground on match day. The play dripped with references to Nottingham and we slurped up every minute of this pageant down memory lane. Never had I seen such an animated theatre audience … until it happened again in 2012!

Same place, same subject (football), different colour-scheme.

‘Diary of a Football Nobody’ is based on ‘Steak … Diana Ross’, by David McVay and adapted for the stage by William Ivory. It’s a candid account of life as a journeyman footballer in the 1970s, tracing his early years with Notts County, a time when pre-match prep is a pint, pie and a ciggie. His Magpie days are sensitive-soul recorded to produce lines like: ‘An A-level in Russian isn’t going to help you much against Derby County’. The production was an evening to warm the heart, embrace the familiar black and white stripes, and give thanks to the Playhouse.

The City Ground, meanwhile, has served up decades of dramas in every colour, from European and domestic cup successes to league play-offs, near-wins and unlikely comebacks. This season – on the back of Championship promotion and record-breaking numbers of signings – has been one of constant suspense as the Reds fight to survive in the Premiership. The common factor throughout these tumultuous months has been Steve Cooper at the helm. His work at the club is shaping up to be quite a story. Documentary film or stage play?

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NottmPlayhouse a venue which has seen some football ‘played’

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