The Greater Game, Waterloo East Theatre – Review

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that. Bill Shankly

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James Phelps and Michael Greco / © LAPA

When conversation turns to “British football” and “The Lost Generation” in the same sentence, more often than not it is used in conjunction with Manchester United’s 1958 team who died in a Munich plane crash. But before that tragic event, 40+ years earlier another British team made history by elisting en masse to serve during the First World War and participate during the Battle of the Somme…

Written by Michael Head and directed by Adam Morley, The Greater Game has as its centre the friendship between Richard McFadden (James Phelps) and William Jonas (Steven Bush). Knowing each other from a young age, McFadden’s football talents lead to him being signed by Leyton Orient on a full-time basis. This was very unusual at the time, as football teams in the late 19th and early 20th century consisted of players who had ‘real’ jobs – working most of the time within industry or some other form of manual labour. While playing football may have been a part-time activity for the players, it was a passion and an activity that bound them to the local community. The early part of the play is steeped in many organic references to the ethos of football back then and watching the show, one can’t help comparing the disparity between the values of today’s game and its working class roots.

But I digress.

16-august-George-Scott-Clapton-OrientIt isn’t long before Jonas finds himself moving to east London to play for the O’s and while he and McFadden rekindle their friendship, there’s plenty of camaraderie to be found in the rest of the team too. There’s ‘Peggy’ Evans (Paul Marlon) – a precursor to the days when footballers had ‘proper’ names like ‘Nobby’ Stiles at Man Utd. Evans’ teasing of others and of George Scott (Scott Kyle) in particular belies a backstory that challenges what is ‘true’ bravery and strength of character.

Along with McFadden and Jonas, captain Fred ‘Spider’ Parker (Jack Harding) sets the professional tone for the rest of the team. However, not everyone reaches their lofty standards. There’s Jimmy Hugall (Tom Stocks) – cut from the same cloth as Darrren ‘Sicknote’ Anderton with his propensity for being injured. Then there’s Herbert ‘Jumbo’ Reason (Michael Head) who on the pitch doesn’t exert himself, but always manages to get back from the team’s training run first. As the ‘gaffer’, Billy Holmes (Michael Greco) applies a firm, but fair hand managing the team.

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Clockwise: Steven Bush, Victoria Gibson, Michael Head, Paul Marlon, Jack Harding, Scott Kyle, Tom Stocks, Michael Greco, Helena Doughty and James Phelps

While the first half of the play deals with the ‘football’ sides of things, the characterisation of the players is important as we see how their personalities cope with pressures of a different sort. Not only of staying together in one piece, but wrestling with the ‘morality’ of war and the questionable orders they receive. On the battlefields of France, the certitude the players had when they enlisted is all but forgotten…

Of course, it’s not just soldiers who suffer during times of war. Even before the team find themselves in France, Mary Jane Jonas (Victoria Gibson) and Isabella McFadden (Helena Doughty) wrestle with finding meaning for their lives as ‘footballer’s wives’. In the case of Mary, moving to London from the north of England is a culture shock. At a time when people generally lived and died in the region they’re born, Mary’s ‘relocation’ from her perspective is like losing a limb, while for Isabella McFadden (Helena Doughty), her husband’s perennial ‘postponement’ to start a family frustrates her no end. The assumption is there’s always tomorrow…

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The real Richard McFadden

The play shows that as a football team at the heart of its community, civic repsonsibility is ingrained into the players and their care of duty to future generations. However, this responsibility follows them from east London to the Somme, where devotion from a fan leads them to examine the toll of the war on the young and the limits of where they can make a difference…

As the centenary of the First World War draws to a close, there has been a plethora of shows that have explored how this conflict affected the fabric of society. The Greater Game has the distinction of not only being based on real events, but highlights a seldom-explored piece of local history. It also shows that in any war, regardless whether one is surrounded by one’s peers, everyone has their own ‘battles’ to fight finding their own way to make it through each day…

© Michael Davis 2018

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The Greater Game runs at Waterloo East Theatre until 25th November.

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