It helps that the script is spoken beautifully by the cast, especially Martin Barrass whose dry northern accent and endless enthusiasm makes him a moving narrator.
The play opens on a divided Bolton community. Brothers Ted (Mark Letheren) and Jim (Curtis Cole) are alienated by shortages of paid employment and the latter’s political beliefs. The relationship between husband and wife Alf (Huw Higginson) and Hilda (Susan Twist) is strained by their inability to cope with their mutual grief over the loss of their son in World War One.
The play explores how the journey of Bolton Wanderers and their victory in, the FC Cup Final in 1923 helps to ease the tensions in the area even though it does put at risk the relationship between Ted and his fiancé Martha (Naomi Radcliffe) as their marriage ceremony is scheduled for the day of the match.
Subtle production values generate a calming, at times reflective, atmosphere that ensures the play does not, despite the exciting subject matter, slip into melodrama. The subdued lighting of Brent Lees gives an autumnal feel to the opening of the play and gradually warms to move into spring. The understated piano backing of Arun Ghosh brings out the melancholy of the characters.
Although the writers are able to evoke the power of football (even to non-fans) they are less successful in creating the characters. Martha is played largely for comic effect and does not do justice to the character’s Christian beliefs. Jim’s communist doctrines sound like they have been learned by rote. But the characters of Alf and Hilda are fully rounded.
Twist convinces as a woman who learns how to fill the void created by her lost son. She is ably matched as it is heart-warming to watch Higginson allow the deeply wounded Alf to open himself up to the possibility of enduring his loss and experiencing life to the full. There are excellent jokes throughout the script particularly at the expense of anyone unfortunate enough to come from Yorkshire.
Former artistic director Mark Babych returns to the Octagon to deliver a wonderfully textured piece of work that never fails to entertain. The dramatic opening monologue is delivered in the style of Shakespeare’s Henry V and is followed by a terrific clog dance choreographed by Catherine Kinsella. One of the matches is represented in the style of a silent movie complete with flickering subtitles.
In practical terms, say easing unemployment, the outcome of the match changes nothing and life continues for the characters as it had before. There is, however, the feeling that things have somehow got a bit better.
And Did Those Feet certainly has that feel-good effect and leaves the audience feeling much happier and even moved by the experience, which, these days, is quite an achievement.
- Dave Cunningham