I Left My Heart in Roker Park...
(And Extra Time at the Stadium of Light)
Customs House, South Shields
Football isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that.
We all laugh at this rather crass comment from some football pundit whose name, quite honestly, I don't remember, but for some it is true. It is what gives their life meaning. Such are the die-hard fans, those who associate the important events in their lives by the fortunes of their team, and such a one is Kevin, the dedicated - indeed obsessive - Sunderland supporter in Tom Kelly's one-man play.
(For those who are not football fans, we should explain that the Roker Park of the title was Sunderland's ground until the mid-nineties, when the team moved to their new ground, the Stadium of Light. And for our American readers, we should emphaise that we are talking here of soccer, not the American variety of football, with which it has little in common.)
Kevin talks to us about his life, beginning with the big moment of his tenth year when, in 1958, his father took him to his first football match at Roker Park, and ending at the present day. On the way he experiences marriage, an inability to have children, divorce, remarriage, the death of his second wife, and his surrogate parenthood with the daughter of his second wife. With this story of an ordinary life are interweaved the fortunes of Sunderland football club, including the great moment when the team won the FA Cup in 1973, one of the highlights of his life.
This kind of thing is writer Tom Kelly's trademark, the closely and sympathetically observed minutiae of the everyday lives of ordinary people, presented with humour and always verging on, but never quite crossing over into, sentimentality. There are no big themes, no attempts to illuminate great truths, simply a gentle and almost loving portrait of an ordinary guy leading an ordinary life, a life given meaning by his relationships and his unstinting but far from blind love of "the team".
A play such as this stands or falls by the quality of the performance and here Kelly is well served by David Whitaker, one of the region's most experienced actors, who is totally believable as Kevin, inspiring both laughter and sympathy. Dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a Sunderland shirt, he was the man who can be seen every Saturday during the season, making his pilgrimage to "the match". And, indeed, both Kelly as writer and Whitaker as actor were well served by director Chris Elphinstone whose light but firm touch kept the piece moving at just the right pace.
The first night audience clearly loved the performance and the play, rising to their feet to give a standing ovation, something which NE audiences are not given to in normal circumatances. Of course there was more than a sprinking of Sunderland shirts in the audience, too, and a considerable number were not regular theatregoers but Sunderland fans there to see something about their beloved team. And don't think that the word "beloved" is out of place here: one of the team's fan magazines is called A Love Supreme!
It's not great drama but it's good theatre, with an immediate appeal both to football fans and to those theatregoers who (like this reviewer!) find football less than interesting but appreciate a well-observed and well-crafted play, performed with skill and sensitivity.
An excellent start to the Customs House's annual February Drama Festival, setting a high standard for the other plays in the coming weeks to follow.