Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 29 October, 2007

My childhood years coincided with the heyday of Georgie Best, so even to such an unsporting type as me the trope of hotshot young footballer led astray by success into drink, sex and general hubris is a familiar one. But this is only one dimension of Roy Williams' play. His protagonist Joe Boateng, a Briton of Ghanaian birth, spends the ten years and/or 105 minutes of the play driven to assert himself not against white hostility but against Caribbean-British contempt of Africans, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. "I'm better than you!" is almost his mantra, but like so many of us, he does not grasp that this usually entails being different, not simply more efficient at being the same. So he not only pits himself against a declining British West Indian star on his own team, but even coaches himself to be ostentatiously fluent in Carib-Brit street patois. Occasionally he protests that it is an act, that there is more to him than this, but by now he has stifled whatever that might be.

This is not "a black play" with that term's too-frequent connotations of condescension or marginalisation. Williams is one of the finest British playwrights to have emerged within the past decade or so, and quite often uses football as a prism through which to view wider and deeper matters. (A kind of prequel for a younger audience dealing with white/black racism in the 1980s, There's Only One Wayne Matthews!, has just ended its run at the Polka Theatre.) Both this play and Femi Elufowoju Jr's production excellently bear out the Tiata Fahodzi company's mission statement about producing work "sourced from people living within British African communities" and "aimed at an all-inclusive British audience." As Abdul Salis' Joe transforms from a timid African teenager into a footballing rude boy, he is matched by Syan Blake's journey as his sometime girlfriend Naomi, from lippy schoolgirl to suffering appendage to hard-gained strength and wisdom; the pair's hopeful ending, though, strikes me as rather contrived in dramatic terms. The rest of the eight-strong cast mostly take multiple roles, with highlights being Heather Craney as the agent who dares to stand up to Joe and Michael Brogan's double as a high-volume team manager and a police sergeant who is also a betrayed fan.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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