Pilot Theatre, now working in partnership with York Theatre Royal, celebrates its 25th birthday with Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads, an ambitious choice not only in terms of the size of cast and scale of production, but also in its uncompromising language and attitudes.
Originally produced at the National Theatre in 2002, the play is set in the King George public house in south-west London as England lose to Germany in the last game at the old Wembley. No one story predominates, but, as the match unfolds on the big television in the bar (situated somewhere above the audience’s heads), racial tensions surface and develop until a final well prepared, but still unexpected, tragic twist.
Williams is unafraid of the obvious, but also delineates with great subtlety and awareness nuances of racist prejudice and hatred, some relatively harmless, some very dangerous, some (perhaps the most virulent) apparently moderate. Violent and shocking, but also very funny, Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads is a true ensemble piece and here receives a true ensemble performance.
The production inspires belief even before the start, with the curtain raised on Emma Donovan’s superbly detailed set, with its pool and football tables, beer engines and bunting. The opening scene between the landlady (played by Sally Orrock with fierce conviction) and her father (the very amusing Claude Close) is equally believable.
Marcus Romer’s pitch-perfect production complements Williams’ examination of different forms of racism via characters who never become ciphers. Tim Treloar’s thuggish Lawrie, the victim of his own anger and inadequacy, seems almost innocent alongside Deka Walmsley’s chilling Alan, the smooth-speaking believer in books and “facts” and other people getting their hands dirty.
Lee, the white policeman (the palpably sincere Andrew Falvey) and Mark, the black ex-soldier (a performance of brooding intensity from Mark Monero) should be the voices of intelligent co-operation, but circumstances conspire. Meanwhile Mark’s brother Barry (Peter Bankole), the pub team’s star striker, at first winningly cheerful in his wrapped-in-the-flag British patriotism, moves to disillusionment while the callow son of the landlady (Mikey North) discovers the danger of identifying with local black gangs. Plenty of issues, no glib solutions.
For all the harrowing material and shocking climax, Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads is also high on entertainment. The scene where the locals join in the National Anthem from Wembley, for instance, is a masterpiece of comic understatement with its solemnly absurd postures and inevitably out-of-time singing.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at Theatre Royal, York)