Football; international bajillion-dollar industry to be sure, but one not exactly known for its tolerance of diversity (insert undergraduate thesis here). This is explored in the touching drama Gaffer, which runs all this week at the Unity Theatre.
Produced by the Unity with Lives Of Others Theatre in association with Homotopia and Everton in the Community, it is directed by the theatre’s own marketing manager Sam Freeman, who is starting to chalk up a successful stage career moonlighting as a comedian (he was among the cast of this year’s Improvathon), writer and director (his play Floating, about the NHS, toured nationally).
Gaffer is written by Chris Chibnall, known for his work on Broadchurch and Dr Who among others. A witty and colourful one man play, it begins like a mini version of Andrew Sherlock’s 2008 The Shankly Show, setting the scene of life at North Bridge FC through the eyes of club manager George. It’s a remarkable performance from Simon Hedger, that requires George as a narrator to take on an additional 19 characters to build up a whole footballing community. As he tells his tale he takes on everyone from the old-school groundskeeper to the smarmy savvy of the new club director. Times are changing, money is tight, and decisions have to be made for the good of the team.
Just one small, Astro turfed piece of stage becomes everywhere from the sidelines on matchday to the boss’s office and George’s front room to build up a complete picture of one man’s life; until the script turns on a dime and our everyman hero is suddenly marked out as different to the rest.
With the club rocked by scandal, the second act (with oranges for the audience at the interval, natch) is a stark contrast to what comes before, but remains well-measured and paced. George’s fall from grace is a shocking and heartbreaking injustice that, although ultimately not especially subtle, makes for a powerfully dramatic story. Hedger (Liverpool Shakespeare Festival, and previous Unity shows including Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latter Day Plays and The Master and Margarita) pitches a passionate, memorable and energetic performance of a provocative work that doesn’t shy away from an issue in sport it is hard to believe is nowhere near being adequately dealt with.
Gaffer is on at the Unity until July 5.