Beating Berlusconi is an unusual play in many ways. It is both very funny and deeply depressing. It panders to, rather than challenges, prejudices. There is no effort to refute the stereotype of Liverpudlians as dishonest Scallies who thrive on defrauding the State or of football fans as lager-fuelled menaces to society.
The title is taken from an incident when, during the Champions’ League Final in Istanbul, debt-ridden Liverpool FC fan Kenny Noonan accidentally gate-crashed a VIP party attended by Silvio Berlusconi. Noonan’s reactions to his team equalising resulted in a confrontation with an offended Berlusconi. This is the climax to a life that sees Noonan involved in many of the major social events that affected his city including the Toxteth riots and deaths at football matches at Haysel and Hillsborough.
The play uses football as a metaphor to examine UK society over the last couple of decades but the analysis is far from objective as it is filtered through the personality of Noonan. Thus, some of the events are assessed in true Liverpudlian style as being largely someone else’s fault. Whilst it is possible to share the disgust and disappointment at recent Governments it is hard to take seriously the suggestion of Derek Hatton as a credible alternative. For someone obsessed by his own pleasures Noonan resents those of others by showing contempt for events such as the City of Culture.
The technique used throughout the play of dropping the names of famous footballers or referring to particular matches to secure easy audience recognition and involvement fails in the case of someone like me who isn’t a fan. Still there is sufficient material to hold the interest – that the 1984 International Garden Festival (organised in an effort to put elastoplasts over the riots) was planted, symbolically, on the decay of a rubbish tip.
The script by John Graham Davies has a strong sense of time and place emphasising the effect of Thatcherite policies on Liverpool as well as the role of football in working –class culture and in providing a sense of worth for groups of people who seem otherwise to be ignored by society.
Matt Rutter directs at a great pace and filmed inserts are, for once, not used as a gimmick but serve a definite purpose illustrating events referred to in the play and providing a reaction to comments from the narrator.
Paul Duckworth gives a committed performance and even though this is a one-man-show, his skilled and credible representation of dozens of characters ensures that it is textured. His interpretation of Noonan gives us someone who is almost heroic in his struggle to survive everyday events – living on a very limited budget for one thing – and yet capable of thoughtless remarks that alienate his father and friends. By the end of the play it is possible that he has learnt to find satisfaction in his family rather than his pastime but with such an interesting flawed character one can never be sure.
For a play that generates a great deal of laughter, there is something desperate almost depressing about Beating Berlusconi; as if football matters so much to the characters because they have so little else.