The Giant Killers

Eve Pearson-Wright and Neil Andrew

The Long Lane Theatre Company

Gilded Balloon at Rose Theatre

From 02 August 2017 to 28 August 2017

Rating: *****

Review by Keith Mckenna

Large gatherings of working people who aren’t working or praying could always be a source of alarm for the rich. It’s a theme that runs through Eve Pearson-Wright and Neil Andrew’s exciting dramatisation of an important episode in English football history.

It centres on the Lancashire town of Darwen where, in the mid-nineteenth century, men and women who worked in the mills would play football in large numbers against a huge fence even though the local authorities tried to ban it and the police would try to confiscate the ball.

We hear from some of these players, including the young girl Lucy Kirkham (Eve Pearson-Wright).

Years later, Lucy is the secretary of the local team and the drama explores how she and three other believable and likeable characters helped to create a team that challenged the national domination of the game by public schools.

They are an unlikely combination. Ashton is a mill owner who learned to love football at Harrow and Billy Walsh (Jimmy Riani-Carter) is the union organiser at Ashton’s mill. That causes friction, particularly when Ashton decides to cut the wages of the mill workers by 10%.

Robert “Bobby” Kirkham (Neil Andrew) is an out of work former mill worker who returns to the town after many years' absence.

We see the way the public schools resist even allowing Darwen to play them at football, claiming it might encourage workers to drink and bet.

There is even a bit of resistance from Billy who says playing in their system will just be used by them to make money.

When a match does take place, the different size of the players even make many on the Darwen side feel doomed.

Billy explains that the Old Etonians “looked taller, heavier from a lifetime of eating well”, in contrast with the smaller Darwen players who had spent “a lifetime hunched at machines.”

But in two matches, they equalise against the Old Etonians and then have to raise funds to pay for travel to a third match at the ground the Old Etonians want because they refuse to play in Darwen.

The stage is small but the company turn a minimal set into football grounds, houses, and railway trains.

This is a remarkable and entertaining show that you don’t even have to be interested in football to enjoy.