Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Football on the Fringe: How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup

"Well, that was the most boring thing you've ever taken to me."

The harsh verdict of a boy of around ten on How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup. Proving, if nothing else, that this play might not be for everyone. And that Edinburgh's public school production line of precocious little bastards continues apace.

The play is an adaptation of JL Carr's 1975 comic novel about the footballing impossible actually happening. A village team fighting their way through to an FA Cup final in the 1950s.

It couldn't happen today. It couldn't actually have happened then.

The premise of this footballing fantasy allows for not just an exploration of a lost world of football but a lost England. An England of village pubs, of outward respectability hiding secrets and lies, of class structures and a society wondering if their Prime Minister was right when he told them they'd "never had it so good."

Issues that a novelist can luxuriate in exploring. The canvas is narrower in Paul Hodson's stage adaptation.

Given such a rich cast of characters the idea of a one man play is a heavy burden for the actor. It's one Mark Jardine carries lightly.

The Hungarian academic who devises an untouchable footballing masterplan, the farmer-chairman of the club who runs the parish and keeps two wives at home on the farm, the star player turned teacher turned coach quietly driven by personal tragedy, the enthusiastically verbose local newshound who provides a love interest, the gawkily eager to please local vicar cum tricky winger.

Jardine delivers them all with an impressive enthusiasm and enough humour to engage the audience, thus Steeple Sinderby is colourfully populated. Colourfully enough to have us rooting for the team throughout their magical FA Cup mystery tour.

Jardine even pulls off the trick of an English actor in a most English play raising a Scottish laugh with a passable impression of Matt Busby leading his Manchester United side through the mud to play at Sinderby's home ground.

Unfortunately the central character of club secretary Joe, dealing with his own demons by slipping into village obscurity in Steeple Sinderby and ending up as our vicarious witness to extraordinary events, doesn't quite convince.

And that, coupled with the need to cram an entire season of footballing miracles into an hour or so of theatre, results in a show that often amuses but can't quite shake a certain air of flatness.

The most boring thing "ever?" Not a bit of it, there's humour aplenty here, a wistful trip to a lost world, perhaps a world that never existed and world full of larger than life characters.

A shame then that the play never quite seems fully realised, like a cup run ending at the semi-final stage. There's plenty to enjoy but also the regret of a missed opportunity.

How Steeple Sinderby Won the FA Cup is at Gilded Balloon Teviot until 29th August

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A.Cup is another of the many titles to be called "the best football book ever written." I certainly got enough from this adaptation to put that claim to the test.