REVIEW: Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, The Spiegeltent, Chichester Festival Theatre, until November 2.
You have to applaud Chichester Festival Theatre’s remarkable sense of timing.
In the week in which an England footballer vows to walk off the pitch if there is racist chanting in the upcoming qualifiers, the CFT opens Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, a ghastly, gripping plunge into all the ugliness the “beautiful game” so effortlessly attracts.
You will never spend a more uncomfortable evening at the theatre. Nor, probably, will you spend a more mesmerising one. Enjoy simply isn’t the word. But you will be glad you were there.
Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads is a play which fully justifies all the warnings the CFT has attached to it – a play which is at times horribly difficult to watch, but a play which is even more difficult not to watch; a play which is consistently, offensively shocking, but a play which is so right to put such hideousness centre stage.
Worst of all perhaps is the thought that Roy Williams wrote it 17 years ago. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed.
Playwright Williams takes us into the heart of a London pub on the night of a huge England v Germany game, the last, as it happens at the old Wembley stadium. The brilliance of this production is that it recreates that pub so beautifully, from the awful carpet to the mismatched bar stools, every last detail.
Above us, three TV screens are ready to show the match as the locals gather to watch. In their England tops, they are fired up by their notion of Englishness, a notion based on a superiority which no one should ever dare question.
At the centre of it all is a terrific and terrifying performance from Richard Riddell as the thug in chief, the shaven-headed Lawrie, a volcano of bile just waiting to explode. Williams tries to gives us some background to the man, as if there is actually something to understand about this character. In truth, it’s difficult to believe he is anything other than utterly irredeemable.
More sinister still and perhaps more interesting is Michael Hodgson’s Alan, the twisted pub philosopher, who calmly lays bare what he believes to be the irrefutable intellectual and historical foundations to his thinking… the thoughts of a sick supremacist.
Most interesting of all, though, is Lee (perhaps the night’s best performance from Alexander Cobb), Lawrie’s brother turned policeman, a damaged guy trying – and not quite managing – to do the right thing.
Put it all together, and it is the most potent, volatile cocktail across the generations – racism, nationalism and sheer bigotry certain from the start to trample all reason.
And there we are, in the pub with them all, just waiting as it simmers almost to boiling point in the first half and then boils over in the second with grisly, tragic consequences.
The acting is first class from everyone as clearly-defined characters repeatedly clash in different permutations as the tension builds and builds.
And the fact that as the audience we are sitting so close makes it all the more real.
At times, you can’t help wondering why we are being shown this in Chichester, surely one of the more liberal of our cities. There are certainly places that need this play far more than we do.
But as theatre which goes beyond mere spectacle and actually makes us part of it all, this is a riveting, deeply disturbing and spellbinding evening.