DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Playing the Joker – The Grove Hall, South Kirkby

Writer: Anthony Clavane

Director: Rod Dixon

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

When Playing the Joker was first performed at Headingley Rugby League ground in 2014, my review stated, “It needs more” – more time, research, depth of characterisation, etc. It still needs more in this new production which has added nothing.

However, this Red Ladder production has much value in the way it is presented. It’s the sort of show that you can wander down to your local hall to see at minimal cost and which raises issues relevant to the people of the area, ending with a question and answer session on those issues.

“Playing the joker” is a phrase associated with Eddie Waring on Jeux sans Frontieres, but Anthony Clavane’s play deals much more with Eddie’s controversial role as rugby league commentator. It expects the audience to know (and, at South Kirkby, the audience did indeed know) about Eddie’s commentary on Don Fox’s missed kick in the so-called “Watersplash Final”, about the famous Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show when Eddie was one of the unlikely celebrities singing and dancing There is Nothing Like a Dame, and much else. 

The play maintains a well-balanced viewpoint on the issue of Eddie Waring’s role in presenting the great Northern game to the national public, still a subject for debate over 30 years after his death. South of Sheffield, who had heard of Rugby League prior to Eddie’s commentaries? He was a great populariser and he boosted Rugby League’s national profile. On the other hand, did his version of it present a caricature of the game and the Northern working class, with his exaggerated accent and chewing of stock phrases such as “Up and under”? Equally true, but where does that leave Eddie, the visionary or the dinosaur?

Clavane is fair-minded, but his ways of presenting the two sides of the argument are totally different. Initially, a frantic young man, also called Eddie (named after Mr. Waring), tries to blag his way into the great man’s Queen’s Hotel sanctum. His reasons for needing to see him emerge via a series of rants, jokes and impersonations (not impressions, he is at pains to point out), but it all has to do with the fact that Eddie Waring is distorting the spirit of 1895 (the formation of the Northern Rugby League) and turning his back on the people who made him, the ordinary folk of the West Riding, notably young Eddie’s father who has just died.

Unaccountably, the stolid Doorman Dave lets him in just before Eddie is going on air to be interviewed by David Coleman (and, yes, we remembered him, too) and the rant continues, with added threats. Eventually, the intruder ejected, Eddie Waring puts the case for his progress against all the odds in a straight interview and monologue.

Since authenticity in Rugby League is at the heart of the debate, it’s good to have an authentic League star in Jamie Jones-Buchanan as Dave, imposing, unmoving except for the occasional burst of physicality. Young Eddie is a pretty impossible part, but Matthew Lewney brings plenty of energy and invention. Michael Forrest’s Eddie Waring convinces without developing the character. Rod Dixon’s in the round production is unpretentiously effective except for the odd positioning of Eddie Waring’s table and chair, virtually unseen by some of the audience.

It’s disappointing that Playing the Joker has not been developed since its first performance, but it’s wonderful to find theatre on your doorstep in places such as the Grove.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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