Stadium – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Creator and Director: Mohamed El Khatib

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

REP Furnace aims to empower local people to become theatremakers. It has had some notable successes, particularly last year’s We’re here because we’re here in which more than 1400 volunteers appeared across the country in First World War uniforms to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and represent the 19240 men who lost their lives in one day.

By contrast, Stadium is bang up-to-date. As another football season ends, international theatremaker Mohamed El Khatib has interviewed followers of local teams to get their stories, to understand the tribal nature of football and present that to us with a mainly amateur cast of football fans who offer their individual testimony. And the range of stories is wide –  sometimes funny, sometimes touching – giving the audience a glimpse of what it is like to follow your team through thick and thin – mostly thin for most teams.

We also see and hear some of the interviews undertaken on big screens behind the stage cut in to a montage that at once shows how fans differ and the rather more ways in which they are similar. And in the audience a number of fans from all of the local clubs attend, many bedecked in replica strips as we sit in rather uncomfortable terracing on the REP’s stage to share the cast’s obsessions and passions.

The whole is a jigsaw of vignettes linked and facilitated by Dimitri Hatton, a French choreographer. Each vignette allows us to see a facet of the fans’ lives: two primary school teachers ‘indoctrinate’ their pupils in the lore of Birmingham City and Aston Villa; families talk of how a shared passion for football affects their daily lives; humorous anecdotes are shared about lost and found false teeth; mascots in ridiculous costumes share their thoughts. And there are moments of quiet power: the Villa Rockets play a demonstration game of wheelchair football with grace and skill – and not a little power when taking shots; local celebrity fund-raiser ‘Blind Dave’ Heeley describes the last goal he remembers actually seeing – Jeff Astle’s winner in the 1968 FA Cup final, which this reviewer also remembers in detail – to a hushed audience sitting in inky blackness.

As the evening draws on, we recognise that football fans aren’t all drunkards, thugs and hooligans but that there is a real passion and a need for a shared purpose among many. We get a glimpse of the benefits some get from that shared passion but ultimately don’t get right inside the mindset of the fan – the segments are short and prosaic, the arguments about which team is the most working-class staged and shallow.

As an exercise in reaching out beyond the REP’s traditional audience and widening participation, Stadium is undoubtedly a triumph – one could overhear audience members admitting that for some, this was the first time they had set foot in the theatre: the fact that the run is almost completely sold out speaks for itself. And it is unquestionably an entertaining night – who wouldn’t want to see local mascots quoting Romeo and Juliet as they warily circle each other – with other spine-chilling moments. But as a documentary seeking to see inside the head of the fan, it only really scratches the surface without offering any new insights beyond those one might get near the office watercooler or in the pub after a match.

Runs until 17 June 2017 | Image: Graeme Braidwood

Review Overview

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Entertaining but lacking real depth

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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