Touring; seen at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Opened 12 May, 2008

A few weeks ago I was enthusiastic about Testing The Echo, David Edgar’s examination of Britishness through the prism of citizenship classes for naturalisation candidates. Now Richard Bean has done much the same through a filter which is more informal and yet, to many, far more significant. The play is set at the boundary of a south London recreational cricket pitch, where an amateur side is playing a Sunday friendly. The team is composed of all sorts: a semi-retired rock star, a GP and lay preacher, a jobbing actor, the owner of “the only double garage in Whitton Dene” and so on. They chat, and argue, and play. And it is a beautiful microcosm of our notions of nationhood.
Norman Tebbit’s notorious 1990 “cricket test” (when he hypothetically asked of immigrants watching a test match, “Which side do they cheer for?”) reverberates throughout, but never overtly. One of the team is black, and the subject of a classic gag: when an ignorantly reactionary new arrival asks him where he is from, he answers matter-of-factly, “Crouch End.” – “I mean originally.” – “Bury St Edmunds.” Another member is ethnically Indian, and when the inevitable subject of Iraq comes up, the virulent anti-Islamist is Jewish although this is not made explicit. For it is not labels that are important here, it is the ethos of the game. We see both laxity and excessive rigour condemned; the model of Englishness which emerges is one of adherence to the rules, but out of decency rather than regimentation.
Bean has often shown his mastery at male banter (although a cast of 13 men and no women is pushing matters a bit), whether it is around an impromptu testicular medical examination or the newcomer’s boast that he bats like Geoff Boycott: “Slow but sure. I completed my first hundred when I was fifteen.” To which the response comes, “How old were you when you started it?” Sean Holmes’ production for Headlong, which tours through June after this opening run in Guildford, evokes the requisite spirit of camaraderie, notwithstanding various vexations and even fury. And Bean’s script jocularly yet tenderly argues that national values, like the team membership, may be dearly felt but are not the be-all and end-all, rather a foundation on which to build common ventures.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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