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Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – review

The hit production returns three years after it first opened

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Samuel Armfield, Makir Ahmed & Rob Compton
© Helen Murray

While the glitz and glamour of ''Crazy for You'' taps and sparkles on Chichester's main stage, there is much darker stuff happening across the road in the intimacy of the much smaller Minerva. In what is proving to be a seriously strong 60th anniversary season for the West Sussex venue, this revival of its 2019 stand-out is a welcome return and is just as brutal and exhilarating all over again.

Roy Williams' play premiered at the National in 2002. Its reinvention in 2019 demonstrated the sad reality of how little has changed – now, less than three years later, this revival is viewed through the prism of an invigorated Black Lives Matter movement. The death of George Floyd drove the subjects of racism and police brutality to the fore, whilst the presence of gang culture and the scourge of knife crime on our streets seem to run rife. Where Williams succeeds most in this bold and uncomfortable piece is in his unerring honesty on the subject. His willingness to look at both sides of the race coin and to shine a light on all facets of Black culture makes the insidious tone of racism no less horrific, but offers context in which to try and understand why the misguided of our society can be led down an unforgivable path of misunderstanding and hatred. The very ordinariness in which Williams reveals both the casual and the explicit discrimination is crushing.

The King George Pub (the irony should not be lost) is televising the England V Germany World Cup qualifier. It's the year 2000 and Beckham, Southgate and Cole are the names on everybody's lips – the Nokia ringtones and ‘curtain' haircuts provide the time stamp in which to take us back. The pub football team are returning victorious and boisterous to watch the match. Barry (a brilliantly conflicted Makir Ahmed) is a young Black man that chooses not to see the racism that is casually bandied around him in order to be accepted by the group. His brother, Mark (a robust Mark Springer) has left the Army and returned in order to open his younger brother's eyes.

Lawrie (a frighteningly aggressive Richard Riddall) is a brutish alpha-male that rants and savages like a Pitbull. His younger brother Lee (a thoughtful Alexander Cobb) has broadly escaped the toxic setting and become a Police Officer - he desperately tries to control his increasingly violent and irrational brother whilst fighting his own inner demons. Whispering into Lawrie's ear at every turn is the quietly sinister Alan (a stomach churning Michael Hodgson) leader of some form of far right Nationalist political party akin to the BNP.

A heartbreakingly relevant subplot of teenage gangs plays out alongside with a nice performance from the young Jem Matthews as Glen and Sian Reese-Williams as his well-meaning Mum, Gina. The generational divide is highlighted with the stand-up-for-yourself attitude of Glen's Grandfather, Jimmy (Steven Dykes). It all culminates in a gasp inducing finale that makes for devastating watching.

Joanna Bowman – previously assistant to original director Nicole Charles – handles the material well. There are a few moments where the tension drops but generally it never falls below a rapid pace. Joanna Scotcher's superb set design is not quite as immersive as it was in its previous Spiegeltent home but is nonetheless still wonderfully observed and brilliantly evocative. The bad language is relentless and not always necessary - and may well explain a number of the empty seats to be seen after the interval at the press preview performance that I attended.

In a year when football will once more dominate the TV channels, can it bring society closer together or will it continue to be a melting pot of ideologies that just never quite seem to happily coalesce? Williams reminds us that the evil of racism is still very much out there and it is often much closer than we realise. This is not an easy play to watch – it is brutal, honest and harrowing - but it is riveting and thrillingly performed and is an absolute must-see.