Kate Attwell
Octagon Theatre Bolton, Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

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Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray
Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray
Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray
Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray
Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray
Testmatch Credit: Helen Murray

Faced with the quandary of whether to write a state of the nation play or a social satire, author Kate Attwell writes both. Although Testmatch has an overarching theme of the lasting impact of colonisation and a conclusion which roughly draws both halves together, it feels like two distinct single-act plays.

In the present day, The Women’s Cricket World Cup is disrupted when rain stops play. Six members of the England and India teams reluctantly retire to the changing rooms at Lords to await resumption of play. They share anecdotes and opinions and engage in mind games to undermine opponents, each hinting the other side will be lucky if play does not go ahead.

I do not follow cricket, but the knowing chuckles from other audience members suggests Attwell’s jibes about the game are on target. Besides, at present, one must appreciate jokes about the endless rain in the UK. Director Diane Page sets an authentic atmosphere with the cast realistically behaving like athletes enduring unwanted leisure—restlessly pacing the stage and undertaking stretching and Pilates exercises.

At the heart of the play is the action taken by players coming to terms with declining prowess—whether to retire with a degree of dignity and move into sports broadcasting or take a bribe for fixing a match. But Attwell squeezes in a wide range of other topics. These may be comedic—whether cricket or rugby players make better lovers—or make a social comment—the pressure on non-heteronormative players to remain in the closet about their sexuality.

At one point, the rival team captains agree, despite having known each other for years, they have no backstory. Likewise, although the cast create vivid characters, their backgrounds are sketchy, which makes it hard for the audience to understand some of their actions. The insertion of so many themes requires contrivances: a player having a major tantrum or the issue of corruption being shoehorned into a chat about lovers.

Attwell pulls the plot threads together, but the emotional impact might have been greater had the first act of Testmatch been expanded into a full two-act play to allow the characters and themes to develop at a more natural pace.

A change of tone from social comment to broad satire is apparent even before the second act begins. The cast, in breeches and powdered wigs, arrive during the intermission as male employees of The East India Company (EIC), complete with Indian housekeeper and extreme accents, to warn the audience, ahem, balls will be flying in the second act. To prove the point, patrons are press-ganged into bowling a few balls, which are whacked around the theatre.

Whilst awaiting the arrival of a trade delegation, the EIC staff pass the time writing the rules of cricket so to ensure that everyone plays by their rules (the satire is not subtle). The buffoons are disquieted by a demand for recognition from a woman’s cricket team which invented overarm bowling to avoid the ball being caught in their voluminous skirts. Yes, the men are literally throwing like girls.

During their self-satisfied chats, the elite let slip the enormous bonuses they have engineered for themselves and, towards the conclusion, announce a bail-out has been arranged to cover-up their mismanagement, which resulted in nationwide famine. The more things change, the more they stay the same—a point made visually in an eccentric closing sequence.

The tone of the second act is uneven; it is largely broad comedy satire but with some dreamlike theatrical additions, which are not entirely successful. The gradual merging of the two acts is achieved in a surreal manner—a reference to a make-up sponsorship in act one foreshadows an act two speech by an opium addict which includes present-day references, despite being set in an earlier century. Author Attwell seems to worry the satirical approach does not emphasise the lasting corrosive impact of colonisation with sufficient clarity, and includes a series of heartfelt but blunt speeches to make sure the point gets home.

Testmatch is thought-provoking writing and in effect offers two plays for the price of one. However, the naturalistic approach of the first act is more satisfying than the somewhat clumsy satire in act two.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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