It wasn’t the fullest house I’ve ever seen at the Theatre Royal. Maybe people couldn’t imagine spending a whole evening watching two Geordie teenagers trying to get season tickets for Newcastle United FC.
York Theatre Royal
Till Sat Oct 15 @ 7.30pm; Thurs matinee 2pm; Sat matinee 2.30pm
But by the end of the night, you would never have known the auditorium was less than packed, as we clapped and whooped and whistled for this six-strong, talented, versatile cast.
Because this show is not just about football. It gets less and less about football as the evening wears on.
It’s about growing up, and families, and hope, and love.
Like the 2000 Martin Herman film, Purely Belter – a film nothing like as well-known as it deserves – this stage version is based on the award-winning Jonathan Tulloch novel, The Season Ticket.
Where the stage version massively wins out over the film, however, is the immediacy of the action. It’s happening right there, in front of you. Sometimes you are laughing till you ache – at other times, the menace and violence within the story are terrifyingly close.
The main characters – Gerry (Niek Versteeg) and Sewell (Will Graham) – begin the play as 15 year olds in Gateshead, dropouts from school, using anything they can (alcohol, cannabis, cigarettes, glue) to get through the day.
Over the course of the following year, they try increasingly unlikely and illegal ways of raising the £1,000 they will need to buy two season tickets to watch Newcastle United.
You can’t help but warm to them. Despite their criminality, and their almost criminal naivety, they are lads with a solid idea of what makes “a good man”, something to which they are determined to aspire.
Like so many of the characters, they have been beaten down by environment, bereavement and low expectations. But at heart, they have unshakeable hope.
Victoria Elliott is outstanding as Gerry’s mother, and Kevin Wathen’s Dan, her new boyfriend, is a genuinely good man without becoming stereotyped. Laila Zaidi really shines in the contrasting roles of Claire and Gemma, and Joe Caffrey is truly frightening as Gerry’s alcoholic and abusive father.
All four of these actors take on more than one role, necessitating some very quick costume changes. The whole cast also helps with the scene shifting, alongside backstage staff wearing Newcastle shirts, rather than the traditional plain black.
The accents, the rhythms of speech, the slang are all perfect for the setting and the characters. I had no problem understanding everything that was said, but I spent 36 years living in the North East – a friend in the audience had some difficulty with some exchanges.
Flawless cast, seamless direction
A few pieces of information may help you here. In the north-east, football isn’t a religion – it’s much more serious than that. Newcastle fans hate Sunderland fans – “Mackems” – and vice versa.
Newcastle play in black and white stripes at St James’ Park, the Field of Dreams, and their fans – the Toon Army – still fondly remember former players Gazza and Alan Shearer. Sunderland play in red and white stripes, at the Stadium of Light – except that’s not how the Toon Army pronounces it.
Newcastle take the field to Going Home, the theme tune of the 1983 film Local Hero, written by native North-Easterner, Mark Knopfler. Sunderland use Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Both pieces of music make an appearance in the play.
Director Katie Posner and scriptwriter Lee Mattinson have brought to life a seamless, tightly-constructed piece of theatre, together with a flawless cast and an inventive stage design from Jean Chan. It all adds up to an unmissable theatrical experience.
It’s not suitable for younger children – it includes swearing, and there are some very violent scenes. But it’s funny. It’s real. It’s purely belter.