“It’s quite clearly not just a game or we wouldn’t be this upset about it would we”
In lieu of anyone having written a play about Wigan Athletic (although maybe there is one to come from somewhere…), I had to make do with Luke Barnes’ The Saints for my theatrical footie fix, journeying down to Southampton on a beautiful summer’s day. The weather was key as the Nuffield have created a pop-up theatre in Guildhall Square for the Art at the Heart Festival and as you can see from the pics below, it takes the form of a mini football stadium, leaving the audience exposed to the elements on its terraces but fortunately a morning rain shower soon changed to blazing sun in time for the starting whistle and a really rather enjoyable piece of theatre.
Kenny Glynn is a lifelong Southampton FC supporter and that life has been one full of hardship and challenges, not least in supporting the Saints through thick and thin, and in a brilliantly conceived first half, we see exactly how that life has played out. We witness the early death of his father at Kenny’s first trip to the Dell, the development of his mother’s chronic illness which made him her live-in carer, the trials being a Sunday League footballer and not a very good one at that, and the woes of being a teenager in love with a girl who barely knows he exists. Alongside this runs a potted history of the club, Kenny unable to dissociate the key events of his life from what was happening on and off the field.
Matthew Dunster’s production is brilliantly energetic – a keen young company of eight multi-role effortlessly, stripping in and out of tracksuits and other costumes at the drop of a hat, and wheeling around the components of Anna Fleischle’s inventive design to keep the pace constantly high. And in Cary Crankson’s wonderful central performance as Kenny, there’s such an appealing likeability that it is impossible not to get swept up in the dramas of his life as he slowly learns that you need to play the cards life has dealt (guided in this respect by a canny guardian angel by the name of Matt Le Tissier, well, it’s God dressed up as him…) and making the FA Cup final isn’t always what it is cracked up to be.
The Saints is clever enough and funny enough to be enjoyed by anyone but without some football knowledge, some of the subtleties here might be lost on you (indeed, I had to google who Francis Benali was). So much focus falls on the larger clubs but what Barnes does is to give an inkling of what it’s like to turn up week in week out for your team, even when the best you can hope for is to win the Johnson’s Paint Trophy (and as a Wigan fan, I’ve been there!) or even when you’ve made it to the Premier League, you find that your games are “never on Sky”, a familiar lament for many a bottom-half-of-the-league team. The sense of community that builds up, the support that it offers, how all-encompassing it can become.
After the interval/half-time, Barnes moves the action to an imagined near-future (where David Moyes has amusingly got a new job) and the play shifts more into something of a heart-warming Brit-flick ethos (think Brassed Off, Full Monty) and the production handles it well, never becoming too cloying as it sweetens up. Claire-Louise Cordwell is superb whether as the gormless Johnno or finding a real emotional connection with Crankson as Kenny’s mum, Scarlett Alice Johnson’s Backstreet Boys-loving Emily is sweetly played and fans of Harry Hepple got to see him performing (and loving) dance routines to Aqua and the Spice Girls and rocking a snug Spiderman costume, happy days indeed. The Nuffield should be proud of what they’ve accomplished here, the pop-up venue was inspired, and I hope Southampton fully appreciates how special The Saints turned out to be.