“Somebody said last night, ‘Ah! You’ve put some lines in’. I said, ‘I haven’t put a thing in’. It’s so prescient that people do think that they’ve seen lots of aspects of this play before – and they have within living memory – but they were in the play 100 years ago.”

That’s Barrie Rutter talking about his Northern Broadsides production of The Game, the day after the first of two preview performances at The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax. The play deals with attempts by Blackton Rovers’ owner (played by Barrie himself) to persuade a rival centre-forward to throw a match: corruption in sport is always topical! The play was written just before World War I by Harold Brighouse whose reputation is odd, to say the least. Between 1909 and 1930 he produced better than a play a year (many admittedly one-acts), but he is remembered for one play only, yet that is one of the best-loved of Northern comedies, Hobson’s Choice. Barrie Rutter reckons it’s laziness that causes us never to look beyond Henry Horatio Hobson’s shoe-shop, but he also reminds me of the danger of metropolitan snobbery:

“The Times is on record 100 years ago, talking about The Game when it went down to London, as saying this is not a fit subject for the English stage. Brighouse was always scathing about London reviewers of Northern plays. You know Hobson’s Choice, for all its fame, was first done in America. They fell for it hook, line and sinker and that fame came back over here and that’s when it was done in London.

The Game somehow got buried and sent down to the cellars of oblivion. It was never published under its own name and, when we tried to get it about 12 years ago, we eventually found it in a Canadian university – it was printed together with two others as Three Lancashire Plays. Even French’s didn’t have it!”

So Barrie Rutter and Northern Broadsides are staging what is virtually a new play to everyone. Audiences will, however, find the style pretty familiar from Hobson’s Choice, with Austin Whitworth of Blackton Rovers second cousin to Henry Hobson and a strong female character (“the burgeoning young woman’s voice”, as Barrie puts it) to set against Maggie. Why, I wonder, has it taken so long to get from a university in Canada to the Viaduct in Halifax?

“Generally we just have two tours a year, so it had to wait its chance and I thought, ‘We’ll do it in World Cup year’, hoping that England would do well and give the play a boost, but actually the abject performance of England in South Africa has thrown up the lines in a different light.”

With a nine-venue 10-week tour of The Game coming up, starting at Liverpool Playhouse, Northern Broadsides (now with as many as five permanent staff!) might reasonably feel that’s enough to think about, but after our conversation Barrie was heading over to Lancaster for the opening night of a seven-theatre tour of 1984, adapted by Nick Lane and directed by Broadsides’ Associate Director, Conrad Nelson.

This year’s touring programme has been thrown slightly out of kilter (and for once does not include a Shakespeare) because of the huge success of last year’s Othello with Lenny Henry which went into the West End and caused the cancellation of the planned tour of Hamlet. That will now follow, directed by Conrad Nelson, in Spring 2011, and next year will also feature a fascinating new play by Blake Morrison which uses Chekhov and the story of the Brontes to create an original drama. Then it’s 2012, with another exciting and varied programme to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.

But for now we can bask in the prospect of a mini-revival in the plays of Harold Brighouse. Unbelievably Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre is staging Zack (better known than The Game, but hardly a staple of the theatrical repertory) in December, so anyone prepared to venture down the East Lancs Road can catch two Brighouse plays within three months!

– Ron Simpson

The Game returns to The Viaduct on 20–23 October and has further Yorkshire performances at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (4–6 November), the Mart Theatre, Skipton (11–13 November), the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (15–20 November) and York Theatre Royal (23–27 November).

1984 plays The Viaduct on 13–16 October and also the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire (20–23 October).