Writers: Sabrina Mahfouz/Hollie McNish
Director/Originator: Caroline Bryant
Designer: Beth Oppenheim
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
One of the iconic photographs in the history of women’s football is of Dick Kerr’s Ladies in their distinctive woolly hats standing in a goalmouth, each woman’s right hand on the shoulder in front of her. It’s a business-like, but oddly touching image. Dick Kerr was a Preston factory whose female employees set up a football team in 1917 which, in the absence of League football, attracted huge crowds. This continued after the war, with Dick Kerr’s Ladies even successfully playing “internationals”. This was all too much for the Football Association which banned women’s football at the grounds of F.A.-affiliated clubs. The team continued for many years with great success on the field; the large crowds and publicity became a thing of the past.
Much less well known is the story of Emma Clarke, a Liverpudlian who in the 1890s became the first black woman to play football professionally. Details of her career are still murky, but it was established recently that she toured Scotland with the quaintly named Mrs. Graham’s XI and was paid an adequate wage for doing so. At a time when the achievements of Walter Tull are at last being recognised, discovering the existence of a black female professional footballer a decade earlier is undoubtedly significant.
Caroline Bryant decided to put these two stories together with a fictional account of two aspiring women footballers today and the play Offside is the result, now on its second tour with an acclaimed stint at the Edinburgh Fringe in between. Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish’s text, Bryant’s direction and Beth Oppenheim’s designs firmly link the history of women’s football with the movement for equality and empowerment. Apart from its general appropriateness, this connects with the fact that Mrs. Graham was better known as a suffragist than as a football manager.
The ingenious concept behind Offside is that two young players in 2018, Keeley and Mickey, are competing for a place in the England squad. Each has an idol who, she knows, suffered greater difficulties than she has and whom she calls on for inspiration. Keeley is inspired by Lily Parr, the goalscoring phenomenon of the Dick Kerr Ladies, Mickey by Emma Clarke. The switches of character, from present to past and back again, are skilfully handled, but the contemporary story is a weakness of the play. It struggles to be believable and focuses too much on one area: media concentration on sex-related and gossip-columny issues where sportswomen are concerned. It’s a fair point, but the various interviewers are grotesquely caricatured and the commentator’s hysterical “match of the century” build-up is the opposite of the real problem of neglect, now, hopefully, being addressed.
Despite that, Offside is both challenging and enjoyable. The poetic parts, often rhyming, about what the sport means are dynamic and powerful; so, too, is the vigorous football-related movement (direction Diane Alison-Mitchell), excitingly in your face in a small space. Chant and song play their part and there is a terrific riff on all the tasks women work at when the F.A. has deemed football too taxing for the poor things.
Jessica Dennis, Marieme Diouf and Fizz Waller all do great work in the ensemble chant-and-move sections but have differing success elsewhere. Dennis draws the short straw, with any number of coaches, commentators and journalists to caricature. Waller differentiates Lily and Keeley very well but strikes rather too many attitudes. On the other hand, Diouf’s expressive and precise performance as Mickey and Emma is always affecting.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed