Powerful, ghastly depiction of racism simmering and erupting - Chichester

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until August 13

Makir Ahmed, Alexander Cobb & Samuel Armfield - photo by Helen Murray
Makir Ahmed, Alexander Cobb & Samuel Armfield - photo by Helen Murray

England’s women played the beautiful game beautifully in their semi the other night – and they attracted beautiful support. Presumably it helps when you are winning. But the ghastly response to the men missing penalties last year underlined once again the unique ability of men’s football’s to bring out the despicable worst in some of the people who claim to be fans.

And that was the point of Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads 20 years ago, a piece which portrayed football as a grim magnet capable of bringing to the surface all that is loathsome, especially when it comes to race. Williams’ play is set in a pub as various supporters gather to watch a match – shown cleverly on big screens almost as a karaoke to the play – which England are doomed to lose.

The piece ran brilliantly, strikingly and memorably in the temporary Spiegeltent in pre-pandemic 2019; now it is back in the Minerva in the hope of getting the future life Covid denied it. The transformation of the Minerva, from the moment you approach the door, is remarkable; and the set is superb. However the grim thrill of the Spiegeltent was that we really were made to feel as if we were in the pub too – which, of course, made the events all the more shocking. The Minerva, however, remains the Minerva and you feel a little distant. The production has lost a certain special something in the transfer. Maybe it’s not a play to go back to. If you saw it last time, cherish the memory; if you didn’t see it, take the opportunity to see theatre at its most visceral… and frankly horrible.

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    Time and again the pub crowd return to the pool table – and you wonder whether there’s a little bit of symbolism going on here: shoot a ball into a neat triangle of balls and watch what happens. Except, of course, the actual pub gathering is hardly neat to start with.

    The tensions simmer and simmer, and you know there is only one outcome. It’s just a question of who is going to be on the receiving end. Richard Riddell is superb as Lawrie, a shaven-headed, vicious, angry thug – one hell of a hellish performance. Michael Hodgson is possibly even more scary as Alan, the deeply boring philosopher of racism who delivers his hideous thoughts in a monotone he believes deeply reasonable.

    In the middle, and maybe the most interesting character, is Alexander Cobb as Lee, the damaged ineffectual cop whose instincts are all wrong. It would have been interesting to see this character developed. Would Roy Williams have had the insight to convey just why being knifed is so lastingly, horribly affecting?

    However, to have shown us more would have damaged the balance between the characters. We get so much but nothing more until the balls ricocheting off each other finally end in death. This is a frightening, ugly piece – and relevant for sure. You wonder whether it is missing its mark in famously-liberal Chichester. Let’s hope it now goes somewhere it will hit home even harder. But then again, it’s also a play about the racism we just don’t know we are committing – which makes it must-see anywhere.