Bobby Robson Saved My Life

Tom Kelly
Customs House, Ion Productions, Quayside Productions
Customs House, South Shields

Sam Neale as Clair
Donald McBride as Tommy

In one way, this play resembles Samuel Beckett’s stage masterpiece. With Beckett, we never get to see Godot of the title. Here, the eponymous Bobby Robson is never on stage.

A bit of background: Robson, a native North-Easterner, spent most of his football career as player and then manager away from Tyneside, winning the FA Cup and EUFA Cup when managing the relatively small club Ipswich, taking England to their first World Cup semi-final since 1966, bringing success to European giants Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and Eindhoven, then returning to manage Newcastle United in 1999 where he kept them regularly in the top five.

Which all now seems distant history. Since that time, the only managers to really fire the Tyneside blood are Kevin Keegan and Rafael Benitez. The current (endless?) reign and iron grip of owner Mike Ashley has slowly drained the club of hope and talent and with the recent exasperated exit of Benitez (the latest in a long line), Newcastle United, one of the best supported clubs in the UK, risks soon becoming a football afterthought, a shadow of its former glorious self.

Hang on though—the reign of Mike Ashley—now there’s a topic for a full red-blooded play! Any offers?

No? Ah well. Meantime, Geordies can indulge one of their favourite pastimes, nostalgia. Tom Kelly’s play makes no pretence at looking at the obvious complexities and contradictions that make up such a talented and driven man as Robson. Here, in a three-hander without a single line of dialogue, they come merely to praise him.

Donald McBride is Tommy, Robson’s lifelong friend, Charlie Richmond is Mark, a Gazza-type figure whose football career is cut short by excesses and overindulgence, and Sam Neale is Claire, a young mother whose child’s cancer has cause to thank the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which Robson founded in 2008.This charity has raised enormous amounts of money to combat the disease which of course, killed its creator.

The play’s format is a series of monologues about each of the three’s own experiences of or influences from Robson, many of which begin with "How could I forget the time…" or "I remember when...". The common factor about these anecdotes / reminiscences is their lack of anything critical or questioning about the man. In one scene we have the cliché of opening the suitcase from which Tommy extracts a succession of memory-linked documents and photographs. It is publicised as a play but referred to inside the programme as a ‘tribute’ which is a different matter and may better have prepared the audience. Or am I the only one to worry?

I am the first to applaud Bobby Robson’s brilliant achievements but two hours of monologue exposition and back-to-back praise can be a bit much. Tom Kelly is a talented, prolific and experienced writer of drama, poetry and fiction and a leading light in the area’s culture. That quality does shows through in the plaintive humour he finds at times, especially in Donald McBride’s Tommy. And though Charlie Richmond is an experienced actor, here he looked ill at ease, at one time forgetting his lines and, after a bit of bumbling, leaving the stage for 15 seconds, presumably to consult the script.

Sam Neale’s character is written too much one-note and, being up near the back row, at times I had problems hearing her. I also wasn’t quite sure how strong were the last two characters’ direct links to Robson himself.

The audience, I confess, loved it and gave it a standing ovation, prompted at the end by the heart-tugging strains of first "Nessun dorma" (the1990 World Cup opening music) then Dire Straits' brilliant track "Local Hero", to which Newcastle United make their entrance onto the St. James’ pitch.

But run this play at a theatre in any other region and its lack of dramatic ambition and conflict, wordiness, regional introspection and insistence on sanctifying, almost deifying its subject matter would see it flounder.

Jamie Brown directs, but, without any dramatic interaction between the characters, his scope is limited. Gareth Hunter and Jamie Brown designed the set, a successful mix of three naturalistic / domestic areas, an old fashioned football terrace and at the rear a large video screen.

Would Robson himself have liked this presentation? My suspicion is he’d have wanted a sharper edge. He was no softie.

Now then, about that Mike Ashley play…

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer

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