Celebrating its 25th anniversary with its first appearance in the new Hull Truck Theatre, Up ’n’ Under is more than just a classic of regional theatre, one that stormed London and New York. It’s also the prototype for many plays where a set of hopeless non-achievers takes on the best with remarkable success. Interesting, then, to read in the programme that John Godber’s own inspiration was the film Rocky.
Up ’n’ Under remains probably the best of Hull Truck’s urban fairy-tales. Characterisation and dialogue (with some updating for this production) are sharp and fresh. The cultural references range from Shakespeare to Chariots of Fire to Rocky, cleverly using the mock-heroic to win over doubters without destroying the sentimental soft centre. Above all, the climax, the rugby match where the worst amateur team in Yorkshire takes on the best, is a brilliant piece of theatre, with six actors effecting instant changes of stance and (it seems) physique to play both teams simultaneously.
This unlikely match-up develops naturally from the long-running feud between Arthur, a former professional hooker whose career ended prematurely with a ban for attacking a referee, and Reg, whom he blames for the ban and who is now the corrupt manager of the leading amateur team, The Cobblers Arms. Arthur’s impetuosity hasn’t cooled with the years and he stakes his house that he can coach any team to beat the Cobblers in the next seven-a-side competition. Reg chooses the Wheatsheaf (who can usually manage about four players) and Arthur sets about the transformation, aided by a lucky meeting with Hazel, owner of a gym, daughter of a rugby league legend (now dead) and ultimately the team’s sixth member. (I have always been perplexed at the absence of a seventh man – was Hull Truck so cash-strapped in 1984 or is Godber overdoing the underdog status?)
Much has been made of the appearance of Abi Titmuss in this production. She radiates niceness, has the confidence of her own work-out video in the gym scenes and excels in the physical comedy of the match. Unfortunately she doesn’t fully convince as the charming, but tough, gym owner: perhaps the character is under-written compared with the men.
The success of the production owes much to two Hull Truck veterans. William Ilkley’s rumpled, gruffly optimistic Arthur, a steady middle-aged chap who’s no more in control of himself than he ever was, inspires audience sympathy without apparently trying. The laconic Robert Angell doubles as the devious Reg, full of understated villainy, and Phil, the schoolteacher who was once nearly a Rugby Union international.
But, as is typical of Hull Truck, John Godber’s production is very much a team effort, with James Crossley (Tony, the dangerously sensitive muscle man), Lewis Linford (Steve, the immature joker) and Eamonn Fleming (Frank, the overweight butcher, and also a gloriously Neanderthal Cobblers player) combining perfectly. Pip Leckenby keeps designs simple, while enjoying the greater space and technical wizardry of the new theatre, and Stuart Briner adds a dramatic, often tongue-in-cheek soundtrack.