To many, cricket is the very antithesis of light entertainment. But in Richard Bean’s new play The English Game, this most leisurely of pastimes provides the framework for a truly engaging evening of theatre.
The premise couldn’t be simpler – an amateur cricket team, The Nightwatchmen, meet for their Sunday game against a rival local team, during which they banter at the sidelines and generally engage in the ancient art of male bonding. But during the course of these usually innocuous discussions, Bean explores a broad range of themes, particularly notions of contemporary masculinity and national identity.
Club captain Will (Robert East) holds the Nightwatchmen together. Both his ailing father Len (Trevor Martin) and young son Ruben (Jamie Samuel) are members of the team, which also includes a young gay British Asian, and ageing rock star and a struggling actor. With ages varying from 13 to 89, this is pretty much as varied a cast of male characters as you will find.
Although no women appear in the play, their presence is keenly felt. From the soon-to-be-married Olly (Marcus Onilude) to the soon-to-be-divorced Sean (Tony Bell), all struggle with 21st century expectations of marriage, and all are united by their need to escape every Sunday to worship at the altar of leather and willow.
The ensemble cast interplay beautifully, although a downside of the fact that they are all onstage for the majority of the time is that occasionally the focus can drift. But fortunately, director Sean Holmes uses the grass-covered stage to maximum effect, communicating perfectly the rhythm and the mood of a sporting summer afternoon.
There is something undeniably troubling simmering beneath the surface of The English Game. It reminded me of those sepia photographs of the hot summer of 1914, a brief snapshot of an era of English society enjoying the final few moments before its total collapse.
Bean’s central theme, that of divisional attitudes to multiculturalism, reveals itself in strange, unexpected ways. But like all good playwrights, he allows the action to speak for itself, never hammering his message home and never forcing his audience to align themselves with a particular viewpoint. And what does remain unquestionable is his love of cricket, that most strangely illuminating and quietly political of English games.