Offside

Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish
Futures Theatre
Omnibus, Clapham

Jessica Butcher, Tanya Loretta Dee and Daphne Kouma Credit: Lidia Crisafulli

The sports pages of newspapers make football seem an entirely male game. So do most schools that organise soccer for their students. Yet there is a long history of women’s involvement in the sport.

Offside by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish links the stories of two real women footballers from the past with two contemporary fictional young women who are aspiring to play for England.

Mickey "Make it" Adoley (Tanya-Loretta Dee) and Keeley "left foot" Finnegan (Jessica Butcher) are making names for themselves playing for different teams. Each is inspired by a woman from the past who has made an impact on the game. Mickey looks to the black woman player of the 1890s she refers to as Carrie Boustead. Keeley draws on the story of Lily Parr who played with the The Dick, Kerr's Ladies in the early part of the twentieth century.

As they speak, they become the women they are talking about, describing the excitement of matches and the wider political struggle. Carrie claims what they did was also about “our rights to vote on who makes the rules we must live by, our rights to wear clothing we can move in”.

The factory worker Lily talks about the Miners' Strike and the suffering of her brother, a casualty of the First World War. For them, the football is not separate from the wider society. It also wasn’t separate for the Football Association which Lily says banned them from using its grounds in 1921 arguing that "football is unsuitable for women’s bodies." To which she wonders if they would say the same about them scrubbing floors at home.

Things may have improved for Keeley and Mickey but they still have anxieties and not just about their football. We see reporters (Daphne Kouma) asking them questions that wouldn’t be asked of men and they worry that their private life is going to be the story.

This is a thoughtful, lively show, performed by fine actors on a set designed to look like a changing room and against a backdrop of tapestries celebrating women’s political struggle by Beth Oppenheim. The mood is upbeat, the language at times lyrical, the content essentially celebratory rather than being angry or probing. Gently reflective, the play never really attempts to develop any dramatic tension or depth of characterisation. But what it does do is important and entertaining.

Women’s football is no longer banned from Football Association grounds but there is still a good deal of gender inequality. In 2016, the Women in Football survey of those women who work in the sport found that 19.2% had experienced being banned from certain areas, 24% had experienced bullying and 61.9% have experienced sexist jokes or banter. These are very good reasons for having a touring production of the play Offside.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna