Waterloo East Theatre, London – until 25 November 2018
Everyone has an anecdote about the war – any war – and this week, when those who fought for their country are uppermost in everyone’s minds, playwright and actor Michael Head brings back to the stage his epic story of heroism, passion, combat and football.
The Greater Game tells the remarkable true story of what happened when 41 members of Leyton Orient Football Club, including ten first team players, officials and backroom staff, enlisted at the outbreak of World War I. For O’s fans it is the stuff of legend, part of their East End club’s rich history. For everyone else it is a profoundly poignant, inspiring and heartfelt tale that epitomises the both the valour and the real cost of conflict.
No denying it, I was moved to the point of tears at this astonishing tale of bravery. When war was declared the football season was thrown into disarray and, after a time, people asked why footballers were still playing when men were going to war. In December 1914 The 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment – The Footballers’ Battalion – was formed and the men from Clapton Orient (which eventually became Leyton Orient) were the first club to sign up. They didn’t hesitate.
Head’s play, which debuted a few years ago at Southwark Playhouse, concentrates on the fortunes of that much loved and respected side. At its heart is the fate of the club’s golden boys, a pair of Geordies, top goalscorer, Richard ‘Mac’ McFadden, and his best friend since childhood, Billy Jonas. Mac had heroism imprinted on his DNA. Before joining the club he saved a man from a burning building and, during his time with the O’s, he rescued two boys from drowning.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Mac tells his wife, Isabella (Helena Doughty) after enlisting. “The country needs us.”
He was beloved by team-mates and fans, and showed the same tenacity at the Somme.
Also on the team sheet we meet accident prone goalie Jimmy Hugall, who was injured three times but insisted on returning to the Front; left back and tough, former miner, Nolan ‘Peggy’ Evans; Mackem transfer George Scott who was taken prisoner and tortured; Captain Fred ‘Spider’ Parker who was the first to volunteer and Bert ‘Jumbo’ Reason who did his best to dodge training runs.
The camaraderie shines through the story. They were a brotherhood who lived and, in some cases, died together.
And, holding the team, and the club, together was their manager, the very dapper Billy Holmes (Michael Grecco).
“Orient was the second oldest club in London,” Holmes tells the audience by way of an introduction.
“They were quite a team back in the day but we peaked too early – about 100 years to early”.
The Greater Game would make an enthralling TV drama where Head’s engaging script could be matched with dynamic outdoor scenes of football-playing and fighting.
As a stage play it is a little claustrophobic, hampered by not having the space to show the men in action.
In the first act we meet the team in training while the second act takes the story to the battlefront.
With a bigger budget for a better set and sound effects this could be more convincing.
But, in its place, is an intimate portrayal of friendship. The changing room banter brings plenty of laughs while the team-mates’ fearlessness makes for a compelling human drama.
It’s hard to single out performances from this strong ensemble because they all deliver premier league performances.
Harry Potter’s James Phelps is wizard as Mac, well matched by Steven Bush as Jonas.
While the pair give the play its emotional heart it is former EastEnders’ star, Grecco, who imbues it with soul, giving a weighty, mature turn as the fatherly Holmes.
Head appears as Jumbo and, along with Tom Stocks’ resilient Hugall, the pair make a great comedy double act.
Jumbo is always ducking and diving, anything to get out of training, while the chipper goalie is always dipping into a dictionary to expand his vocabulary.
Some of the men died heroes, others returned, amazingly, to top flight football. I was particularly taken by the story of Spider Parker, the first of the club to volunteer for war.
After distinguishing himself in battle he returned from the trenches and was able to carry on his career for another four years.
But, according to the very informative programme, after 350 club appearances, many as captain, and scoring 34 goals, Parker retired and promptly lost all his savings in a bad investment.
He ended his days as a porter at King’s Cross Station. He died in 1963 and, tragically, now lies in an unmarked grave, a forgotten hero.
Michael Head’s timely revival is a captivating, uplifting and courageous story, written with passion and played with heart.
The Greater Game runs at Waterloo East until November 25.
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