Music: Scott Stroman
Libretto: Tamsin Collison
Director: Bernie C Byrnes
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Sport has always been a fascinating subject for fiction writers inspired by exceptional tales of human endeavour and triumph against the odds. And most sports films or plays, are generally not really about sport at all, but about the personality and drive of the individual. Yet, even now 25 years after the publication of Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch that spawned two film versions, the love of the game from the perspective of obsessive fandom is still a rarity.
Scott Stroman and Tamsin Collison’s new show Fever Pitch: The Opera may seem a strange combination of art forms, but utilising its proximity to Arsenal’s Highbury Football Ground, they have given Hornby’s tale a community feel by uniting professional actors with the local adult and children’s choir to produce a 90-minute (two 45-minute halves with no extra time) distillation of one man’s lifelong devotion to the beautiful game.
Gooner discovers a love for Arsenal when his dad drags him to a game one Saturday afternoon, and spends the next 20 years embroiled in the few highs and consistent lows of his favourite club. Through teenage angst, the university years and the ensuing search for a career and woman to love, Gooner’s relationship with his club may be painful and dispiriting but it’s completely consuming.
As a project to engage the community, Highbury Opera Theatre’s production of Fever Pitch: The Opera is clearly written and performed with considerable love for the work. Utilising the two choirs as football crowd members, Gooner’s classmates and eventually his pupils, is neatly done, creating a sense of the buzz in the stadium and packing the stage at the right moments.
Although the acting style of the grown-ups is less notable than their singing voices, especially in a strangely choreographed fight scene that lacks danger as stagey punches are thrown in slow motion, The Children’s Chorus shines, particularly in ‘We’re Gonna win the Cup This Year’ as the young Gooner is embarrassed by his friends for supporting a poor performing team. Frequently the choirs sing together, placed around the church and on the balcony level which creates a lovely blanket of sound for the audience in the middle and adds much to the moments of drama in the various matches.
Stroman has written some very enjoyable music, mixing lots of styles that reference the football chants of numerous clubs with swing, jazz, touches of Sondheim in Gooner’s later solo and some more rousing vaudeville-inspired pieces. It’s not really an opera though, but Fever Pitch: The Musical probably isn’t grand enough for its charming Islington location.
Less successful is Collison’s Libretto which offers very little character depth, least of all for Gooner. The short run-time means lots of the action is sung-narrative, with relatively little of Gooner’s non-footballing life fully dramatised. The audience hears about going to Cambridge, in a rather poor song, falling into teaching, trying to become a writer, having therapy and finding a girl, in scant detail, so by the end we haven’t learnt that much about Gooner’s personality or even why football above anything else became his passion.
The professional performances work well with the material; however, with Robin Bailey as Gooner creating enough investment to keep the audience engaged in his story. His performance of the only solo ‘Love for the Team’ is a really insightful moment, a proper monologue that adds plenty of texture which Bailey performs extremely well. His Teen self, played by Philip Protheroe, led the excellent swing number ‘You’ve Gotta Walk the Walk’, signalling the mixture of aggression and façade that young men display, which could be an opportunity to enlarge the role of this formative period to understand why Gooner became the man he did.
At the moment it is a little disjointed, but developing the central character more fully and employing a few more dramatic devices to vary the straightforward narration, such as using the sports announcer role to commentate on Gooner’s life rather than just the match results, could add more depth to the book. Fever Pitch: The Opera in its first public outing has plenty of reasons to cheer, and a solid musical framework for a show about extreme fandom, it just needs to go into Extra Time.
Runs until 24 September 2017 | Image: Contributed