Up 'n' Under
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum Theatre
From the time that John Godber was writing innovative, fast-moving, popular comedies such as Bouncers and Teechers, Up 'n' Under is his 1984 play that transfers the story of Rocky to the world of pub rugby league.
After a pseudo-Shakespearean prologue, the terms are laid down for the rest of the show as ex-professional player Arthur Hoyle (Jeffrey Harmer) is provoked by old rival Reg Welsh (Richard J Fletcher) into staking his house on an impossible bet: that he could train up any team he names to beat Welsh's feared Cobbler's Arms side.
He names the Wheatsheaf, a team that always loses, can't even field a full team and is on the verge of giving up for ever. He eventually persuades them to stick around then employs Hazel, daughter of another ex-player, to get them match-fit—after she has fended off their rather pathetic attempts to chat her up.
Hoyle manages to get their interest, then their commitment to the cause, building up to the big act II set piece when the big match is staged, using a clever device to allow the same six actors to play both teams at the same time. I won't spoil the ending, but it is more uplifting than idealistic—and very different from the film. The audience was with them enough to actually applaud when they scored on press night as though it was a real match.
Like his other plays from this period, Godber mixes direct audience address with dialogue scenes, verse with prose, realism with dreams and pure fantasy. While some of the jokes are a bit creaky and obvious, others still work very well and the whole play has a lively freshness that his more recent work has lacked.
Chris Lawson's production for the Coliseum is snappy and pacy with great comic timing. There were a few blips on opening night—the Coliseum is one of the few theatres still to invite the press to the first public performance, which doesn't do the cast any favours—but nothing that won't be resolved after another performance or two.
Lauryn Redding, who stood out for me in Oh What A Lovely War, is impressive again as Hazel alongside a perfectly measured performance from Harmer and a great team of Matt Connor as Phil, Richard J Fletcher as Steve, Anthony Hunt as Frank and Reece Richardson as budding male stripper Tony (we do get a sample of his act!), all played just right but none looking particularly like a rugby player.
There is a lot of linking music and underscoring (sound designer Keiran Meadowcroft), but some links become too repetitive when used to cover lots of consecutive scene changes of very short scenes. For some reason, the auditorium speakers are now pointing to the walls instead of the audience, so if you are sat in the middle (as I was for Lovely War) they sound muffled but at the sides you get the full top end and it drowns out some of the dialogue. I don't understand the reasoning behind this.
Overall, this is a slick and entertaining production with a well-chosen cast on good form and well worth less than two hours of your time.
Reviewer: David Chadderton