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Red Pitch at the Bush Theatre – review

The football-infused drama continues its London run through to 26 March

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Francis Lovehall, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Emeka Sesay in Red Pitch
© Craig Fuller

If you live in London, or any city for that matter, you'll know a place like Red Pitch. A caged 5-a-side football pitch, it is both a meeting place and a source of potentially life-changing riches for the characters in Tyrell Williams' sharp, funny and deeply poignant debut full-length play, which started life at the nearby Lyric Hammersmith.

Sixteen year-olds Bilal, Joey and Omz have grown up together on the ‘Endz' estate in south London, but the conjoined threats of redevelopment and gentrification are looming. Even their beloved Morley's chicken takeway has been turned into a Costa ("He tells me they sell soup… soup bruv," complains Joey). Between joshing each other and sparring over the ball they make profound observations about life, friendship and belonging.

Williams' dialogue is peppered with street slang and feels wholly authentic, as does the onstage football. Kedar Williams-Stirling, Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall give assured performances that never stray into pastiche. There is a palpable chemistry between them that makes the inevitable fissure, when it comes, all the more moving. Tensions rise to the surface when the three attend a trial for Queens Park Rangers. The dream of being scouted, with the path to Premier League glory it could open up, is their ultimate goal. Omz (Lovehall) wants to help his elderly grandfather, currently struggling with the stairs on the rundown estate where the lifts have broken. Bilal (Williams-Stirling) feels it's not about making money, but being successful, whereas Joey (Sesay) is more pragmatic, with a back-up plan to study law.

Despite their different outlooks and struggles, the trio are united by their love of the game, and Red Pitch. When, after a party, Joey goes to relieve himself in the corner, the others are outraged. This is hallowed ground. In one particularly funny passage, Omz imagines showing his future children around, pointing out where he scored his greatest goals. "You're gonna lie to your kids like that?" teases Bilal. This is an eloquent love letter to our increasingly threatened public spaces; it should be mandatory viewing for councillors everywhere.

Director Daniel Bailey ensures the entire 90 minutes (naturally) fizzes with energy. The boys hardly ever keep still. There's a fabulous dance section that gets the audience whooping, a fight that feels visceral (hat tip fight director Kev McCurdy). And the football skills – which could so easily feel pat – would make Messrs Salah and Ronaldo proud. Sport on stage is a risky business, and usually left out of sight (see Patrick Marber's The Red Lion), but here it is effectively enmeshed within the action. A mention too to the choreography of movement director Dickson Mbi, and also designer Amelia Jane Hankin, who creates an in-the-round arena, superbly lit by Ali Hunter.

Tyrell Williams has hardly come from nowhere, he is a graduate of the BAFTA Elevate scheme, but he's a rising talent of the first rank. Theatre needs voices like his, and I sincerely hope that, like a footballer, he remembers the grassroots when he's signing his big contracts.