The English Game
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
This play could easily have been entitled Cricket for Monsterists. With the assistance of Headlong Theatre and crack director Sean Holmes, Richard Bean has written what starts out as a light comedy based on a cricket match on London's fringes and develops into an oblique, masculine look at life today.
For those that have been there, The Nightwatchmen are an archetypal Sunday afternoon cricket team, made up of a rum bunch, both in terms of their cricketing abilities and, far less importantly, their qualifications to deal with real life.
The Monsterist Manifesto requires its proponents to take on big issues, even in the seemingly innocent context of a cricket match, and Bean effortlessly and entertainingly does so.
The XI are led by loyal Will, played by Robert East. Every team has one of these "captains" whose true role is dogsbody, getting teams together, organising fixtures, making teas and even removing dog turds from the outfield, before happily batting at Number 11. As he says, "I've wasted the whole of my life playing this game" and loved every moment of it.
The Nightwatchmen are his equivalent of family heirlooms. This becomes apparent as we this see his tottering Dad (Trevor Martin) recalling the good old days and 13 year son, Ruben heralding the new.
Will's team is brimful of characters. The captain is Tony Bell's Sean, a northerner whose wife has left him on the verge of suicide and who touchingly announces that "Cricket is the only source of joy left in my life"; Thiz, endearingly played by Sean Murray, is a bleach blond, ageing rock legend with a good line in bad jokes; Nick (Rudi Dharmalingam) the wicketkeeper is a gay Hindu; there are also an act-or (John Lightbody); a lay preacher cum doctor with cricket addiction but no talent whom Howard Ward makes sympathetic and irritating simultaneously; and a bunch of other short term escapists from the prison of everyday life.
The play is really spiced up by the team's new boy Reg, gloriously portrayed by Fred Ridgeway. He is an absentee team-mate's neighbour who ought to be the answer to everyone's dreams, whacking the ball to all corners after the (tea) interval.
However, this arrant racist who affectionately refers to his wife as "the enemy" puts up the backs of this most liberal of teams. By the close of play (in every sense), which is predictably poignant, Reg has won the match and been dispensed with, all in the space of an afternoon.
Richard Bean has followed impressively in a long literary tradition that takes cricket as a metaphor for something much deeper, emulating the likes of A.G. Macdonnell in England, Their England and Hugh de Selincourt in The Cricket Match. He builds the tension perfectly towards a last over finale and ensures that jokes come thick and fast, some, it must be admitted, funnier than others.
Whether you are a cricket lover or a people watcher, there is much to enjoy in The English Game. One sincerely hopes that it might make an appearance in London before the season is out.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher