Up ‘n’ Under – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: John Godber

Director: Tracey Street

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

It’s 1984 and The Cobbler’s Arms reigns supreme in Rugby League Sevens across the north of England. Arthur is an ex-pro who lets his mouth run away with him and makes a potentially disastrous bet with the Cobblers’ manager, that he can train any amateur team to beat them.

And so Arthur finds himself trying to take the worst team in the north, The Wheatsheaf Arms, and make them match winners in five weeks – a team of mismatched individuals that has an unbroken record of defeats and which can’t even muster more than four players; a team that sees a night sinking half a dozen pints as a heavy training session.

The team is initially sceptical about Arthur’s offer to train them although they do throw themselves into fitness training with Hazel, gym owner and widow of a local rugby legend. But how will they react when Hazel lets slip that Arthur is there just as the result of a bet and that they have a match set up against the mighty Cobblers’?

Up ‘n’ Under is a classic David and Goliath tale as the no-hopers gradually find pride and self-belief. What raises it above the run-of-the-mill tale is John Godber’s brilliantly written dialogue making the characters believable with plenty of belly laughs and also moments of great poignancy – for example, there is a particularly powerful moment when the team feels betrayed as the details of the bet emerge and Arthur is left to ponder his folly. An interesting technique to move the action on is the use of actors stepping out of character to deliver Shakespearean monologues in blank verse, reminding us of the mammoth task the team has taken on. It is perhaps no surprise that the play won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Tracey Street’s direction gives Godber’s dialogue the opportunity to shine and allows each character to be three-dimensional and believable while allowing for the many gags to hit the target. The sense of growing self-belief is communicated superbly – so much so that when the big game is enacted we can smell the team’s adrenaline, and feel the excitement of the crowd, feeling their highs and lows as the game progresses, gasping, sighing and laughing in turn. The small performance space is exceptionally well-used with sharp choreography as the team train and play.

Paul Findlay’s Arthur is a triumph. We feel his emotions as well as understanding his motivation even as he drives over the cliff in making the bet. Joanna Gay’s Hazel tasked with improving the team’s fitness is well judged. The team themselves: pompous teacher, Phil (Oliver Leonard), down-to-earth butcher Frank (Vincent Fox), mining apprentice Tony (Stuart Ash) and mechanic Steve (Sam Malley) gel well – their banter has a genuine feel and one feels the connection between them as their confidence grows.

An unashamedly feelgood offering from Old Joint Stock, Up ‘n’ Under nevertheless packs an emotional punch.

Runs until 26 November 2017 | Image: Contributed

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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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