The Far Corner
Harry Pearson, adapted and directed by Simon Stallworthy
Gala Theatre, Durham
It is sometimes said that football is a religion in the North East, but it's not: it's much more important than that.
Sorry, I just couldn't resist slightly mangling that well-known quotation, but there is an element of truth in it for, as the play points out, In the North East people used to wind the strands of their everyday life arund it - childhood, youth, work, friendship, relatives - until football became inextricable from existence itself.
The Far Corner - book and play - is about obsession, the obsession of one man with football, a man who, in the 1993/4 season, visited many of the grounds in the region, from (as the publicity has it) St James's Park to Langley Park, from premiership stadia to Sunday league grounds, and described the people he met on the way. It's funny - some of the characters he meets are hilarious - but, like all the best humour, there is pathos, even sadness, there too, and just a little philosophy to underpin it.
The set is simple - part of a football ground with enough seats to do duty as a modern stadium and enough rails to suggest the old terraces, a bench which serves as a bus, a car - and a bench, and a screen onto which are projected stills from football games and captions revealing what particular match and ground we are currently watching - and so is the structure. A match or ground or incident is described, the actor leaves the stage and the lights fade to blackout. Cue music and a change of screen image. The actor returns, the lights come up, and the pattern resumes.
It's a structure fraught with danger, requiring all the skill of the adapter and the actor to prevent it from becoming repetetive and dull. Both adapter Simon Stallworthy (whose other hat is that of director) and actor David Nellist succeed admirably. The length and dynamic of each section vary sufficiently for the piece to move along at a good pace but without our feeling that we are being rushed and certainly without longueurs.
There was a slightly different audience at the Gala for this show - many were there clearly because it was a show about football - but the sure sign of the play's success is that it appealed as much to those who have no interest in football (me!) as to the fans.
This is the first in-house production from the Gala. "I wanted a project that was very much of this region," says Stallworthy, "something that was rooted in the area, and something we were doing because we were a theatre in Durham."
The Far Corner is certainly a good choice: it reflects the area and its people, examines a deep-rooted part of its culture and makes the audience laugh while looking at themselves and how they live with an indulgent but critical eye. And it's well done. We look forward to more of equal quality!
"The Far Corner" runs until Friday 14th April
Read Peter Lathan's 2005 interview with Simon Stallworthy when first arrived at the Gala.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan