And Did Those Feet

Les Smith and Martin Thomasson
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo

The latest offering from the Octagon is a newly-commissioned play for the theatre's 40th anniversary season remembering Bolton's visit to the newly-completed Wembley Stadium (or The Empire Stadium, Wembley as it was known at the time) for the 1923 FA Cup Final against West Ham United.

The play takes us through the Wanderers' matches on the road to the final on 28 April, 1923. Many of the people in the town work in the mill, including Ted, his younger brother Jim, who talks enthusiastically about Marxist theory, and his fiancée Martha. Alf can not come to terms with the loss of his son Billy in the war and refuses to go to the matches without him, even though his wife Hilda goes in her son's place. Newsagent Bob is determined to walk to every match, even to the final in London. The trouble comes when the date of the final coincides with Ted and Martha's wedding, and the vicar, verger and organist are all going to the match.

Most of the play works very well on the level of a light comedy against a specific historical background. The story mostly centres around the trio of Ted, Jim and Martha, and it is their scenes that work the best, bringing in mentions of the downturn of trade and subsequent laying off of workers and integrating this well with the football obsession and some great comedy. Newsagent Bob, who acts as the main narrator, also has some very funny lines, and there are plenty of laughs from some of the match scenes as the crowd performs its reactions in different styles, including a great silent comedy version.

The one element that doesn't seem to fit is the story of the dead son of Alf and Hilda. As a thread of story it would fit, but the play dwells on it for rather too long, which brings it down at times to sentimentality and gratuitous emoting. There is also a little too much dewy-eyed sentimentality in the ending: the names of the players are spoken one by one as they appear on the screen at the back while the cast sings Jerusalem (where the play's title comes from), bringing to mind the role call of the dead from Henry V.

Director Mark Babych has assembled an excellent cast for his production. As Ted, Jeff Hordley shows some superb comic timing and delivery—his hesitations and expressions when he finds out about the clash between the final and his wedding are just perfect—matched by great comic performances from Paul Simpson as Jim and Hayley Jane Standing as Martha. Martin Barrass also produces a fine comic performance and a loveable character as Bob with some hilarious monologues as he travels the country. There are also good performances from Susan Twist and James Quinn as Hilda and Alf and Chris Finch as the ghost of their son Billy.

Richard Foxton's design cleverly combines a section of the football terraces with an open multi-purpose area with lots of dark wood, backed by a large projection screen, and there is some nice atmospheric music by Arun Ghosh.

The Octagon has commissioned a piece that has a strong local relevance and is very entertaining. Although a few social issues from the time are mentioned, they are only really explored superficially, but they work well as a backdrop to some well-written and superbly-performed comedy.

Running until 20th October

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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