Originally premiered as the opening production of the Lyttelton's Transformation season exactly two years ago, when it was tightly shoe-horned into a tiny studio space that had been temporarily created in the Circle foyer, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads now makes a hugely welcome National return to the somewhat larger Cottesloe Theatre. But even here a transformation has been magnificently achieved as the auditorium is turned into the bar of the King George III pub in south-west London, with some of the audience seated around tables and others perched on bar stools, around which the action unfolds.
Set on the calamitous day of Saturday, October 7, 2000 when England played off against Germany in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley that the home team lost to a 0-1 score (and saw the manager of the England team, Kevin Keegan, instantly resign after the match), it may have been a football disaster, but playwright Roy Williams turns it into a theatrical triumph.
As the publican Gina (Tanya Franks) readies the pub with her dad Jimmy (Gawn Grainger) for the arrival of a group of fans to watch the match on the giant TV screen in the corner, permanently tuned to Sky Sports, the scene is quickly set for a powerful drama that will unfold in real-time in the next two hours. Williams ratchets up the tension with extraordinary skill and the kind of minutely detailed pacing that wouldn't be out of place, from a purely technical point of view, in an Ayckbourn play: moments in the drama have to be timed to coincide precisely with moments in the game, as the characters have to respond to what they're watching on screen.
As a result, in addition to the large cast of 14 characters that we see on stage and Williams also marshals superbly, there are also 22 more, at least, on the TV screen. But this isn't just a big play in its number of characters, but even bigger in terms of the ideas it explores. For this is a brilliant play that dares to articulate unpalatable ideas, and give voice to serious arguments on both sides of a racist divide.
When Gina's son Glen (Ryan Ford) is beaten up for his jacket and phone by two black kids, one of the drinkers ominously declares, "Rivers of blood". The person who says it, Alan (Paul Moriarty, is no inarticulate yob, though, and Williams takes a far more dangerous and engrossing route of letting him defend his position. But the slow-burning anger of the disaffected Mark (Ray Fearon) - a black former soldier who has done service in Northern Ireland - and his brother Barry (So Solid Crew performer Ashley Walters), offer an eventually potent riposte to what constitutes Englishness.
As engrossingly acted in Paul Miller's riveting production, this is both a frightening and a challenging play, and revived in the wake of football commentator Ron Atkinson's recent racist outburst, it's also even more relevant than ever.
- Mark Shenton