And Did Those Feet
Les Smith & Martin Thomasson
Octagon Theatre Bolton
University of Bolton Stadium
The Octagon's latest production brings a double-dose of nostalgia: this is the second revival of a play commissioned by the Octagon and originally performed there in 2007 (then again in 2010), and it recalls the first time Bolton Wanderers won the FA Cup in 1923, the first to be held at the new Wembley Stadium.
The play—which takes its title and its rousing finale chorus from the William Blake poem and Hubert Parry's setting of it as "Jerusalem"—is a bit of a patchwork of stories, but central to everything is newsagent Bob, played by the wonderful Martin Barrass, the only returning member of the original cast. He acts as narrator from time to time with some funny monologues, taking us through the cup draws and the matches leading up to the final, for which he plans to walk to London as he has to the other games.
Ted (Ciaran Griffiths) is torn between his brother Jim (John Askew) trying to drag him along to the sparsely attended meetings of the local communist party and fiancée Martha (Helen O'Hara) trying to get him to the church meetings, whereas he just wants to catch the latest Harold Lloyd film. His problems increase when the mill puts everyone on short time, his brother is sacked and blacklisted and the date for the Cup Final is announced to clash with his wedding day.
This last setback results in Martha's great little comic speech about how Bolton will be empty on her wedding day—even the vicar, organist and all the church key holders are going to the match—and how she has fixed everything.
There is so much packed into the story of this household that these characters deserve a play of their own. There are indications of more substantial themes about politics and industrial relations of the period, but there is only the space here to deal with them superficially.
The other story is about Alf (Colin Connor) and Hilda (Barbara Drennan) and their son Billy (Nathan Ives-Moiba), a promising footballer on Bolton's books who was killed in the trenches in Belgium in 1917 and who returns to his parents individually as a ghostly reminder of their loss. Alf refuses to go to any more matches, so Hilda goes in his place, making and selling rosettes to raise money to get to the final.
This story feels drawn-out as there are a lot of long speeches of grief and regret and no real development until right at the end. Even some of the dialogue seems more like broken-up monologues, as there are large chunks of heightened speech where they tell one another what they already know and don't respond to what the other has said. However the emotional climax really hits home, but then how could it fail to with two such great actors in these roles.
I focussed on the comedy a lot in my previous reviews, which didn't seem as prominent in this production, although there are certainly some good laughs in it. Perhaps a change of director—former artistic director Mark Babych directed previously, whereas this revival was taken on by his successor David Thacker—has shifted the emphasis. The physical elements didn't work for me, either the clambering over the furniture to represent the trenches at the start or the physical comedy routines, which were okay but could have been so much more, especially with someone like Martin Barass in the cast.
The production is on a thrust stage in the Lion of Vienna Suite at the current Bolton Wanderers stadium in front of a panoramic view of the seats of the stadium through the window. There is some good use of video (video designer Stanley Orwin-Fraser) in a narrow screen across the top of this window and on either side of the stage.
Overall it's a good local story with a strong cast and some good laughs in a venue that isn't ideal for theatre (especially if you're not sat on the front row) but is certainly evocative for this particular tale.