And Did Those Feet

Les Smith and Martin Thomasson
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Production photo
Production photo

Former artistic director Mark Babych has returned to the Octagon to revive a play commissioned for the theatre's fortieth anniversary season in 2007 while he was still at the helm.

And Did Those Feet was written to have direct relevance to the geographical area of the theatre that commissioned it as it traces the progress of local football team Bolton Wanderers through the various rounds of the 1923 FA Cup to face West Ham in the first final to be played at the newly-constructed Wembley Stadium.

The story is principally told through two Bolton families. Ted has brought up his younger brother Jim since the death of their mother, and while Ted is preparing for his wedding to Martha, Jim is getting heavily involved with a small group of local Communist activists. Alf is still mourning the death of his son Billy in the last weeks of the War, refusing to go to watch football any more as he always went with his son, while his wife Hilda starts to take an interest in the sport to represent her son on the terraces. Holding the story together is newspaper shop owner Bob as narrator and everyone's confidante.

When it begins to look as though the Wanderers may get to the final, Hilda raises money for her ticket by making large rosettes, Bob plans to walk from Bolton to London and Ted realises, to his horror, that the final is on the same day as his wedding. This comes to a head in a brilliantly-written and perfectly delivered comic scene in which Martha details the various people who will be absent from their wedding because of the Cup Final (including the vicar, the organist, the caterers and all of the church keyholders) before laying down firmly her plan for solving the problem.

In fact it is the comedy that is most successful in this play, both in the writing and the performances. Martin Barrass reprises his role as Bob and again achieves perfect comic delivery of some great lines and speeches. The comic banter between Mark Letheren as Ted, the superb Naomi Radcliffe as Martha and Curtis Cole as Jim also works very well, and the political arguments, while not exactly in-depth social analysis, do show up nicely the tensions between fighting for rights and holding on to a job, between solidarity with colleagues and feeding one's own family and between old-fashioned deference to one's superiors and a youthful desire to smash the system.

The parts that work less well dramatically are mainly with the family that has lost its son to the War. Susan Twist returns to the role of Hilda as does Chris Finch as the ghostly figure of Billy, with Huw Higginson taking over the role of Alf, and all produce some very strong, emotional performances. The problem is that while the early scenes show why they are mourning and in the later scenes Hilda tries to persuade Alf to move on and and start going to matches again, the middle parts are mostly about sentimental reminiscences and therefore very slow and static.

The ending of the play also steps into sentimentality as the names of the players are slowly read out in a role-call as their faces appear on the big screen at the back. Perhaps this is effective for any audience members who get dewy-eyed over the result of a football match, but it seems like a curiously down ending after so much great, uplifting comedy.

Mark Babych keeps the pace well and adds some lovely little touches, such as the very funny silent movie style match (we only ever see a small section of the crowd during the match, never the players) and when the men read the match report in the newspapers as though commentating live on the game. There is some great use of sound from sound designer Andy Smith, from the very subtle and realistic sounds of children playing just offstage to the surround sound of explosions and gunfire in the trenches.

Overall this is great fun and at times hilarious, tightly and imaginatively directed and very well performed, and while it wouldn't persuade me back on the football terraces, it certainly kept me entertained for a couple of hours in the theatre.

Running to to 10th April, 2010

David also reviewed the original production in 2007

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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