Cricket lovers aside, an evening in the theatre devoted to the intricacies of the controversial “bodyline” test match way back in the 1930s ought to make for a pretty dull night out.
So writer Michael Pinchbeck and director Giles Croft, who commissioned this work for the Playhouse in celebration of one of the county’s local heroes, deserve warm congratulations for crafting a truly engrossing drama out of what for most people remains a complicated and inaccessible sport.
Theatregoers worried by the play’s cricketing theme can rest assured that they won’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game or anything like it to enjoy the very human story behind this still controversial slice of our sporting history.
In 1932 England needed to come up with a radical new set of tactics to take on the Australians, and in particular their legendary batsman Donald Bradman who had inflicted a humiliating defeat against us in the previous Ashes series. Spotting a weakness in his play they devised a new ploy – bowling “leg theory” which meant delivering fast balls aimed at the batsman rather than the wicket. “Bodyline” as it was called just wasn’t cricket according to the purists, leading to nasty injuries among the receiving batsmen and a rough ride from both the Australian crowds and the players.
At the heart of the controversy was England’s fast bowler Harold Larwood, (Karl Haynes making a wholly credible working class hero – think Ian Botham but blessed with down-to-earth modesty) a former miner who learned his craft and gained a fearsome reputation for speed and accuracy playing professional cricket for Nottinghamshire. England won the series and reclaimed the Ashes but the controversial tactics tested political relations between this country and Australia to breaking point.
Larwood was essentially a foot soldier commanded by his autocratic skipper Douglas Jardine (Jamie de Courcey striking just the right note as the remote and belligerent England captain) to give the Aussies a hard time. His stunning performance should have made him a national hero, instead both he and Jardine found themselves cast aside by cricket’s ruling body and he quit the professional game just four years later while in his early 30s.
In a play as much about Britain’s class structure and the shadow of colonialism the cast of seven flawlessly recreate events both on and off the field. Against the background of Barret Hodgson’s very effective AV screens which seamlessly blend Pathe newsreels with contemporary photos and vitally important signposting, Robin Bowerman, Sarah Churm, Damian Warren-Smith and Daniel Hoffman-Gill take on a wide variety of parts with Paul Trussell particularly effective as Frank Foster, the unwitting architect of the English bowling tactics.