Writer: Phil Vasili
Director: David Thacker
Composer: Adrian Johnston
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
In the early part of the 20th Century, when Walter Tull played football and served in the army, racism was so ingrained it was actually part of army policy to limit the promotional possibilities open to non-white soldiers and football commentators felt at ease referring to the race of a player. Against this background the achievements of Tull, on the field and in the army, are remarkable – he became one of the first black British officers in the British army in the First World War before perishing at the Somme.
A fine ensemble cast of just eight enacts over 100 characters. Making a virtue of necessity director David Thacker dispenses with sets, costumes and props and relies on the cast to create scenes by mime and the imagination of the audience to fill in any gaps. This approach ensures a fast-moving production that involves the audience directly by spilling off the stage into the aisles of the theatre. But the scene changes are so frequent that it is hard to even identify, let alone relate to, the wide range of characters. It falls to the actors, particularly Marc Small who delivers an anguished performance, to generate an emotional response in the audience.
The play is clearly a labour of love for Tull’s biographer Phil Vasili and forms part of his campaign to secure posthumous recognition for Tull’s military service. Tull works well as a biography conveying clearly the main points of the subject’s life. As a drama it is less successful being worthy but over-wordy and too literal. The play boasts and astonishingly assured debut from Nathan Ives-Moiba in the title rôle. It is an exhaustingly physical and deeply committed interpretation that, wordlessly, makes clear that for Tull football was a form of therapy – to compensate for past losses- or even redemption. Yet Vasili feels obliged to re-iterate the same points verbally and with less subtlety.
Perhaps in an effort to widen the appeal of the play to include debate on the impact of the First World War on society Vasili creates a tenuous romantic link between Tull and a suffragette, Alice (Fiona Hampton). This gives Hampton the chance to deliver speeches with a fiery passion but the points made are hardy original and the shift from a personal to a political viewpoint feels jarring and contrived. There is no evidence of Tull’s political views and his actions are those of someone who preferred to lead by example rather than attempt to change the system by direct action as favoured by the suffragettes.
Tull works best as the story of an individual who coped gracefully, and with dignity, with the prejudices that were common in his day and some of which continue in the present. As a political drama, however, it is strangely unconvincing.
Runs until 16th March 2013