Queen's Theatre, London W1
Opened 10 June, 1998

While Scotland were going 2-1 down to Brazil, Watford were sinking 2-0 to Everton... again and again and again. The opening moments of David Farr's comedy show Brian Conley's Bill watching a video loop of that second goal which definitively doomed Watford in the 1984 F.A. Cup Final because, believes Bill, the goalie was temporarily blinded by a flash of sunlight on the club chairman's specs.

Conley deserves respect for taking on such a role, and for giving himself to it so wholeheartedly. Those lured to the Queen's by his name and the memory of his chirpy, cheeky performances in the likes of Me And My Girl and, to a lesser extent, Jolson, will find him gently but firmly pushing the envelope here, his comic timing tuned as finely as ever but here applied to darker, more mordant one-liners. At first sight, the scruffy agoraphobic slouched in the only chair on Tim Shortall's squalid set is scarcely recognisable as Conley at all.

The arrival of younger brother Dan and his no-hope rock band - their singer having split, their gear impounded by a venue manager represents an irruption into Bill's hermetic void, in which he now torments himself by following the progress of Watford's home games through interpreting the different kinds of roar audible from the nearby ground. When the last fixture of the 1996 season is further disturbed by the arrival of a teenage girl soccer fanatic, and Bill's match-day mistress causes yet more complications, the potential for outright farce is high.

Farr (rewriting his 1992 fringe success Neville Southall's Washbag) plots his coincidences and entanglements like the most skilled farceur, but feels least at ease when he allows the dialogue and actions to follow. For the most part he strikes a keen balance between laughter, discomfort and the encroaching sentimentality in the play's final phase; in this he is well complemented by Terry Johnson's alert direction, strong performances from Gabrielle Glaister and Will Keen as lover and brother respectively, and moments of pure joy such as David Nellist's rapturous account of his short-sighted odyssey through Watford town centre carrying a stolen bass drum.

Close examination reveals a convenience of characterisation and back-story (what on earth, for instance, attracted Julie to Bill in the first place?), but Farr's first major swim into the mainstream after relinquishing the artistic directorship of Notting Hill's Gate Theatre shows that he can abandon cleverness without also jettisoning intelligence and sensitivity; he even carries off the mandatory final uptwist of hope to counteract Watford's relegation that day. And, right now, it makes a welcome change from endless bloody football.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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