Chichester Festival Theatre’s Spiegeltent – until 2 November 2019
Raw, naked aggression and racism, stoked by plenty of booze and national pride, has often blighted British football. We’ve seen bigotry, xenophobia and tribalism spill out into the pubs, clubs and urban heartlands. The more immigration becomes an issue in society the noisier and more violent some sections will react.
Roy Williams’ incendiary 2002 play, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, which attacks grass roots racism with all the finesse of a vintage Vinnie Jones tackle, is back and spewing vitriol in Chichester Festival Theatre’s pop-up space, The Spiegeltent.
Shocking, foul-mouthed, ferociously brutal and brilliantly played throughout its 115-minutes running time, this is the sort of gutsy, uncompromising and bold drama that is sorely lacking in today’s inoffensive, watered down theatre industry.
Sing Yer Heart Out is rude and stridently offensive. It has the balls to include language and opinion that would make more timid artistic directors think twice about programming. Thank god Simon Evans isn’t one to run away from controversy and the production’s director, Nicole Charles, doesn’t shy away from the story’s violence and prejudice either.
This highly provocative piece, which comes with the statutory warnings less it upset some of the more conservative CFT regulars, first premiered at the National Theatre in 2002.
This is a timely revival with the country stirring once again against immigrants and far right extremists rallying openly in the streets. Williams pitches Sing Yer Heart Out during the 2000 England v Germany World Cup Qualifier, the last match to be held at the old Wembley Stadium.
With, we’re not allowed to forget, a certain defender, Gareth Southgate out of position in midfield, a shaven headed Beckham having an off day, pony-tailed David Seaman facing the German offensive and Kevin Keegan in the invidious position as manager. But all that is window-dressing.
We’re in The George pub, an old style south-west London boozer – darts, pool, and table football obligatory – on match day , with busty, brazen landlady, Gina (Sian Reese-Williams), behind the bar.
A single mum, struggling to cope with teen Glen who thinks its cool to hang out with the black kids and talk their street patois, Gina runs the place with the help of her salt-of-the-earth dad, Jimmy.
The TVs are ready – well those that are working – the lads from the pub football team are due in to watch the game after their match, and emotions are running high.
Then one of Gina’s old boyfriends turns up looking for his brother who plays for the team.
Mark’s left the army after a spell in Northern Ireland and he’s back to discover that the predominantly white regulars are still bad-mouthing the Afro-Caribbean community.
Lawrie’s brother, the sober Lee (Alexander Cobb), a police detective whose own innate prejudices were tested after a knife attack, tries to keep the peace.
Pretty soon Mark Springer’s superbly tense and controlled Mark is clashing with the violent Lawrie and arguing semantics with Michael Hodgson’s chilling Alan.
But it’s only a matter of time before blood is spilled and old rivalries mar what should be an afternoon of passion and support for the national team against an old rival.
Richard Riddell gives a blistering turn as Lawrie, a Neanderthal, neo-Nazi attack-dog whose untempered aggression is muzzled by Alan.
Hodgson makes your skin crawl as the middle-aged, quietly spoken, self-taught racist whose extreme beliefs put him far right of the National Front.
As a youth Alan was probably a skinhead putting the boot in to rivals on the terraces and in the streets.
But, with age, he’s learned that in order to succeed you have to be as smart as the opposition. Now well-read and well-armed he grooms thugs like Lawrie to be the muscle in his fight to keep English for the English.
There are moments when the violence erupts and some in the front rows of this immersive pub theatre, visibly cower.
An impressive, vibrant and energetic performance by the entire ensemble, who don’t hold back any punches.
Seasoned TV and stage veteran, Martyn Ellis, throws his weight around behind the bar like a pro publican, while young Billy Kennedy is riveting as the troubled and terrified, Glen.
Director, Nicole Charles not only uses every inch of space in the Spiegeltent but she also takes the action outside.
When a police car turned up, with its blue lights flashing, and two cops jumped out, I had to do a double take as to whether it was a real or part of the play.
Expect explicit language, violence and provocative themes in this visceral, shocking and unmissable drama.
Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads continues in Chichester Festival Theatre’s Spiegeltent until November 2.
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