Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Day We Played Brazil

He shoots, he scores! Photo: Farrows Creative

In early 1914, the FA – after being turned down by Tottenham Hotspur – invited Exeter City FC, as an example of a ‘typical’ British football club, to embark on a tour of South America. After several successful games in Argentina, the team headed to Rio de Janeiro to play, on 21st July 1914, what would become a historic match in footballing history: the first ever played by the newly formed Brazilian national team.

Featuring a cast of 92 – all with Exeter connections, some performing for the first time – The Day We Played Brazil (at Exeter Northcott until 27th July 2014) celebrates the centenary of that important moment in sporting history, following the team on their South American adventure while revealing what it was like on the home front for the wives, girlfriends, families and fans, all eagerly devouring news of ‘our boys’ while Europe rumbled steadily towards war. Through the eyes of several generations of the same family, it also traces 100 years of Exeter’s relationship with its beloved football team (including the ill-fated alliance with renowned spoon-bender Uri Geller. No, really…) from the present day back to coincide with the 1914 storyline. With rousing songs, stirring crowd scenes and exciting displays of on-pitch prowess – plus a tender love story at its heart – the production is not only an impressive example of community theatre but is an interesting speculation on the nature of civic pride and national identity.

Co-directors Polly Agg-Manning, David Lockwood and Nick Stimson draw convincing performances from all the cast, but the real star turn – displaying a superb voice and great comedy chops – is Bethany Watson as Winnie Prowse, the faithful City fan whose infatuation with legendary goalie Dick ‘Pincher’ Pym and reluctance to entertain potential suitor Tom Davey (a suitably lovelorn Jim Green) underpins the romance that provides one of the production’s narrative backbones.

And while the crowd scenes convey the thrill of being part of something bigger than oneself, generating a warm tingle of fellow-feeling and community spirit, it’s the scenes with the team, especially those on the ‘pitch’, that stand out most effectively. Beautifully choreographed, with convincing portrayals from all the actors as both players and characters – special mention must go to Franko Francis as the splendidly earthy Jimmy Langan – the games are revealed in a series of slow-mo, balletic vignettes that make great use of Chris Davies’s lighting design and manage to capture something of the excitement of a live game in full flow. Simple yet inventive staging – particularly the representation of the team’s Atlantic crossing – and intelligent use of the space assist the narrative’s constant shifting between the personal and the universal, meaning we are never too far from the individual stories that really make the production shine.

With a desire to cram in references to social and political change – as well as 100 years of Exeter City’s history – there’s a tendency for some of the elements to feel a little too fleeting and occasionally forced, and the characterisation to veer towards stereotype. And while sections of dialogue don’t quite make it beyond the astro-turfed stage and some solo turns reveal a mismatch between the demands of the score and vocal ability, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production packed with energy and ambition that satisfies on many levels.

Book & lyrics by Nick Stimson

Directed by Polly Agg-Manning, David Lockwood & Nick Stimson

Co-produced by Exeter Community Arts Project, Exeter City Football Club, Exeter City Supporters’ Trust, Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter Northcott

Cast includes: Bethany Watson, Nathan Nuurah, Franko Francis, Jim Green

Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins (15-min interval)

Reviewed for Exeunt