Writer: Dougal Irvine, from the book by Riaz Khan
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: James Garrington
Football in the late 1970s and 1980s started to hit the news more often because of what was happening off the pitch rather than on it. Increasingly people went to matches specifically to fight, with seemingly little or no interest in the actual game and rival gangs would rampage through town centres looking for trouble. It was also a time when racism-fuelled violence began to erupt and men with shaven heads and Doc Marten boots went about looking for anyone whose skin wasn’t white, with members of the Asian community being particular targets. Different racial groups clung together in something akin to ethnic ghettos in an attempt to find safety in numbers, while paradoxically trying to find acceptance through integration.
This was the situation the young Riaz Khan found himself in growing up in Leicester and is the setting for this world premiere of the stage version of his book, Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual. As a teenager, Khan struggled to find acceptance in the wider community due to his racial background, but then found that his attempts to be more British made it hard for him to feel part of his local community too. Desperate for a feeling of belonging he was drawn to the local Leicester City gang, the Baby Squad, and all that that involved.
Jay Varsani plays Riaz and Hareet Deol plays his friend Suf with both actors jumping in and out of a large number of other characters as the play progresses, transforming themselves with seemingly little effort by the addition of a prop, an accent or a mannerism. With so many different characters cropping up, there is a danger that the audience may get confused – but not here, as the somewhat stereotyped nature of the characterisations serves well to make things absolutely clear. These are stand-out performances from two young men who surely have a good future ahead of them.
The energy that these two display on the stage is incredible, both emotionally and physically. Once the play gets into its stride they hardly stand still in a dynamic and fast-paced production that makes you feel as though you are being dragged along with them in their never-ending unstoppable juggernaut of violence. Another game, another fight, on it goes in an almost bewildering rush of ideas and events that you feel reflects the lives of the participants at the time – though sometimes as an audience member you want it to slow down just a little to give you time to process what’s happening. When Riaz Khan suddenly realises the true cost of hooliganism, his world changes forever and there’s a change of energy that creates an almost tangible shock with a softly-spoken appearance by the author in a cameo as himself at the end of the play.
In a time when some of these tensions between communities are once again surfacing, this is a hugely important, thought-provoking and extremely relevant piece of work about the need for a feeling of belonging, a feeling of community and a feeling of self-worth – even if the only way to find it seems to be through violence. Highly recommended, it will provide food for thought and reflection for a long time after you’ve left the theatre.
Runs Until 6 October 2018 | Image: Ellie Kurttz