Tynecastle Park, Edinburgh – until 30 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
History, emotion and righteous anger combine tunefully and humorously in Sweet F.A., This Is My Story Productions’ thoroughly welcome return to Tynecastle Park.
Providing a fictionalised version of the rise and fall of women’s football during and after the First World War, and performed on a stage built into Tynecastle’s new Main Stand, Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow’s play tells of the North British Rubber Company’s women’s team and their sporting and personal struggles.
Scotland, of course, has a shameful history regarding women’s football. While the Scottish football authorities did nothing so vulgar as ban the game in the 20s, choosing instead to obstruct its progress so completely as to make it virtually impossible for it to carry on, they compounded their folly in 1971, when the SFA were the only authority to vote against the recognition of women’s football.
It is impossible to discuss this show without mentioning This Is My Story’s previous War Of Two Halves. While it shares a venue, creative team, historical period and many preoccupations with that previous work, it surely stands on its own merits.
Indeed, it is about as different in tone from the earlier piece as can be imagined. While it undoubtedly has serious intent and dramatic moments, Sweet F.A. is a rumbustious thing, full of humour and pawky abandon.
It is also very much a ‘play with music’ and it is this, together with the overtly consciousness-raising tone, and some of the more exaggerated comic turns, that sets this firmly in the tradition of Scottish political musical theatre. Successive arts cuts never quite killed the strand that goes back through Borderline and Wildcat to 7:84 and beyond.
Indeed, there are moments in the depiction of the Shady Footballing Authority (disclaimer: not related to any other SFA), all top hatted cringing toffs, brayingly self-serving, that could easily come straight from The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil.
Heather Horsman (with back to camera), Lucy Pedersen, Ria McLeod, Elspeth Turner, Laura Harvey and Rachel Macpherson-Graham as The Shady Football Association in Sweet F.A. Pic: Simon Messer
Which is undoubtedly a good thing. And it is a sign of the winning confidence and theatrical nous displayed here that we can flip straight from such broad comedy to beautifully well-judged evocations of love both unrequited and struggled against, or from huge geopolitical considerations to their effects on individual lives.
At the centre of the story are well-heeled Alice (Rachel Millar) and more rough-hewn Daisy (Ria McLeod), thrown together by chance, by the war and by football. Millar and McLeod both provide tremendously well judged performances, all the more effective for being comparatively underplayed.
Yet the more comic turns also provide pathos, with Lucy Pedersen not only shining as the forgetting-to-vote Lord Dundee, but also portraying Harry, whose emotional disappointments are all the more affecting by being cloaked in a clownish exterior.
brittle and bereaved
Elspeth Turner, meanwhile, is not only the most outrageous SFA member Lord Scunthorpe (once again, definitely not Donaldson) but also the brittle and bereaved Reenie, as well as providing fiddle to go along with Jo Differ’s guitar.
Heather Cochrane’s commanding Helen is also outstanding, but this is very much an ensemble piece, with the other performers – Laura Harvey, Heather Horsman and Rachel Macpherson-Graham – also deserving a mention.
Lucy Pedersen, Heather Horsman, Rachel Millar, Elspeth Turner, Laura Harvey and Rachel Macpherson-Graham. Pic Simon Messer
Bruce Strachan’s direction is excellently judged, and the production even manages to navigate the notoriously tricky business of portraying football on stage. Ian Cunningham’s production design copes admirably with the demands of an outdoor stage in changing light and sound conditions.
Not everything works perfectly; there are some jarring moments, with the in-jokes for football fans (and particularly Hearts fans) not always coming off; admittedly, these are more like Easter eggs, as overall the production has the widest possible appeal.
Parallels with modern events are a shade heavy-handed, some of the exposition verges on the clunky, and the whole thing is a little too long.
Beeson and Barrow’s lyrics are serviceable rather than inspired, and while Matthew Brown’s folky music fits well, it is unlikely that the audience will be going out singing the songs.
Overall, however, in intent and execution, this has to be counted as a roaring success. Those involved in football who still choose to make tired jokes or thoughtless comments about the women’s game should be the first in the queue.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
Tynecastle Park (venue 547), Gorgie Road, EH 1 5NL
Thursday 5 – Thursday 19 (not Mon 16); Tuesday 24 – Monday 30 August 2021.
3.00 pm (except 13, 17, 19, 24,25, 26, 27)
7.30 pm (except 8, 15, 28, 29)
Information and tickets at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/sweet-f-a
Company website: https://www.thisismystoryproductions.co.uk