Writer: Victoria Saxton
Composer/Lyricist: Vikki Stone
Director: Charlotte Westenra
The story of the Dick, Kerr Ladies is one of the most remarkable in football history. In the First World War, with many men of working age recruited into the forces, women took jobs, particularly in factories, that had hitherto been a male preserve. To raise morale and also money for war charities, factories began forming women’s football teams. Far and away the most famous were the Dick, Kerr Ladies, based in Preston. Formed in 1917, by 1920 they were playing in front of 50,000 crowds and taking on international matches against French opposition.
By the early 1920s the reactionary male authorities in the UK were generally engaged in trying to restore the pre-war status quo and part of this was the Football Association’s ban on women staging matches at F.A.-affiliated grounds. However, Dick, Kerr Ladies carried on with further international tours, though home fixtures were now more likely to be in front of 5,000 spectators. As Preston Ladies they continued until 1965, playing a remarkable total of 833 games. The ban, incidentally, was lifted a few years after the club was wound up.
Not surprisingly, Dick, Kerr Ladies, having been largely ignored for many years, are – quite rightly – getting widespread attention in the 21st century, with television documentaries and several plays. Our Girls, Our Game is different, however. Written by Victoria Saxton with the collaboration of the members of British Youth Music Theatre in (she claims) less than two weeks, it contains the basic facts of Dick, Kerr Ladies’ early years, but uses them to celebrate female empowerment, what Saxton calls “the tenacity, talent and courage of both the young BYMT cast and the Dick, Kerr Ladies.”
The hour-long musical centres on a match played against St. Helens at Goodison Park on Boxing Day 1920 (both the onstage notice and Wikipedia contradict the programme’s dating of 1921) which proved to be the Ladies’ last hurrah on Football League grounds. A commentator narrates the Preston team’s 4-0 victory as the cast mimes the events of the match and a perkily tongue-in-cheek trio of reporters occasionally intervene. The match recurs from time to time in between events in the team’s history (beginning on the factory floor in 1917) and eventually, after the F.A.’s bombshell, the team vows to continue.
The all-female cast of 30 proves a tight-knit and talented ensemble. Great names from the history of Dick, Kerr Ladies surface: Lily Parr of the rocket shot and the unorthodox life-style, Florrie Radford who went to France to play full-time, Alice Kell, the team’s first captain. However, it’s the quality of the ensemble that matters most; for instance, the cast are listed alphabetically in the programme, no parts assigned.
There is no attempt to suggest the period or the age of the characters: these are clearly teenage girls with their dreams, jokes, friendships and squabbles and dialogue and gesture are strictly 2021. This generally works well – it would have been nice to see the iconic Dick, Kerr bobbles hats, though! Vikki Stone’s songs and background music are excellent, with a versatile band of two supported by flute, guitar and ukuleles played by the cast, and some impressive voices, both solo and in ensembles. The songs themselves range from choruses of empowerment, an oblique love song and “I am what I am” anthems to a witty treatment of playing football in France (a delicious production number – choreographer Jane McMurtrie) and a recurrent number for a Spanish-style trio on the unsuitability of the game for girls.
Charlotte Westenra musters large forces in a small space with great skill and, despite the (probably deliberate) naïveté of much of the dialogue, the spirit of the show triumphs in the end.
Reviewed at Bradford Studio on August 22nd 2021