The Customs House
The Customs House, South Shields
Jeff Brown, known to many as the main sports presenter for BBC Look North, is also a playwright.
Two strangers from different backgrounds and life styles meet on a park bench. Adi (Jason Njoroge), an Afro-French Premier League footballer meets Vicky (Hannah Marie Davis), a young, single, penniless mother with a terminally ill mother. Their lives seem miles part, but are they so different?
Their story unfolds in the first half interspaced with energetic scenes involving Adi’s agent, Mike (Adam Donaldson), who controls the player’s life. Adi disagrees with Mike’s dishonest tactics, but Mike says, "that’s the way it works, that’s football, that’s life,” but it is not the life Adi wants, and in Vicky, he finds a soulmate. Vicky’s scenes with her friend Ange (Abigail Lawson) fill in more details of her life. The cast is completed with two football fans, a Boy (Zac Anders) and a Lad (Dan Howe).
While this is centred on ‘boy meets girl’, it covers many issues from racism, the world of money, power, war and the media. The serious content is interspersed with much natural humour, relieving the tension. The cast are a good blend of different characters, while enthusiasm and youth may account for Anders's rushed speech, which unfortunately lost most of this text. The set has a central bench, which doubles up for interior scenes, and two open boxed areas left and right, cleverly suggesting goal posts. Blackouts break flow and concentration and it is sometimes difficult to change multiple scenes unobtrusively as it can be distracting to have several blackouts with people moving items around.
I particularly like the title, with it’s multi-layered meaning, not only being centred on a park bench but referencing the ‘bench’ at a football ground, where substitutes sit, part of the team but not involved in the game, sitting watching, waiting to be called. The two central characters are also sitting on an imaginary bench waiting to be called to a life they wish to be involved in, but they also are sitting on the sidelines.
Brown joined Look North from Tyne Tees. He was a newspaper journalist for 14 years, starting at the Birmingham Post & Mail in 1982 as a trainee. He returned home to the North East to The Journal sports desk in 1986. He mainly covered football, boxing, speedway and Durham cricket at the time. There being no media courses available at the time, he studied Economic and Social History at York.
Brown began writing this play in 2018, a year after his first play Cornered, which also premièred at The Customs House and other local theatres. Unlike Cornered, which was a true story based on the football player David Corner, this is fictional. As he says, “I always loved writing and people say write about what you know and I do know about football” having “covered it for 40 years and watched it for 55.” The play also involves other important interests. Having family experience of the valuable work carers do, he is patron of Sunderland Carers Centre, and his love of parks is also central.
The Brown household is no stranger to theatre, having always supported it, his wife a playwright and daughter an actor. No-one can dispute his great knowledge of football and his other concerns come out strongly in the play. The truth about what he knows shines through the text, giving it credibility and strength.
The obvious enjoyment of the full house was shown by frequent bursts of laughter and complete silence in the serious sections, topped off with a standing ovation. You do not have to be a football fan to follow or enjoy this play, which may open your eyes to some aspects of the game, apart from it being an endearing story.
Reviewer: Anna Ambelez