Sweet FA, Tynecastle Park ****
1902, Leith Arches ****
Moonlight on Leith, Space Triplex ***
With travel more difficult than usual – and the Fringe operating on a last-minute basis that offers a huge advantage to those already on the spot – Edinburgh stories loom large, on the 2021 Fringe; and nowhere more so than at Tynecastle Park, where – on a special small stage built in the shelter of the east stand – This Is My Story Productions join forces with Hearts Football Club to present a remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable tale of women’s football, and its strange rollercoaster history.
Written by Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow with music and songs by Matthew Brown, and performed by a terrific female cast of nine, Sweet FA is the story of a group of women who – while working at the North British Rubber Company in Fountainbridge during the First World War – decided to form a football club, and start playing matches to raise funds for the war effort. Significantly, it wasn’t the first time that enthusiasm for women’s football had swept Britain; the game had been popular in the 1880s, and one of the key characters in Sweet FA is team coach Helen, who remembers those days.
The men of the various Football Associations, though, soon got together to discourage it; and it was only the need for wartime fund-raising that persuaded them to offer limited support to women’s football during the war years, before finally – in the case of the Scottish Football Association – moving to ban it again, just a century ago this autumn.
This is the politics of the story told in Sweet FA; but the history is movingly brought to life through the stories of eight flesh-and-blood women living through the grief, anxiety and relentless toil of wartime on the home front, and finding friendship and a sense of achievement on the football field. Sweet FA is not a subtle show; it tends to alternate between soap-operatic moments of forbidden love or shared grief, and satirical sequences about the corrupt football authorities so broadly drawn that they become tiring long before the end of this two-and-a-half hour show, which would probably work better at 90 minutes without an interval.
For all that, though, the songs are grand, the live music heart-warming, and the team spirit of the company a joy to experience. In a fine coda, the script invites us to consider where women’s football would be now, if it had not been suppressed again in 1921, for a long half century; and to wonder whether, for all the momentum behind the women’s game now, the same sudden, bleak reversal of the social and political mood could not happen again.
It’s difficult, for example, to imagine the women’s game cutting much ice with the regulars at the Dug And Duck Bonnyrigg, the mythical Midlothian pub at the heart of Nathan Scott-Dunn’s hugely successful 2017 Fringe play 1902, now revived again at the Leith Arches. Hibernian fans will need no explanation of the title; 1902 was the last year that Hibs won the Scottish Cup, before their triumphant return to glory in 2016.
In this hard-hitting, in-yer-face drama, though – directed by Scott-Dunn and Sands Stirling, very much in the Trainspotting style of the 1990s – we see how love for the team drives our hero Deeks and his friends Sambo, Frankie and Zippy deep into dangerous territory, when Deeks borrows the money for four precious 2016 cup final tickets from a scary local hard man.
1902 is not a show, it should be said, for those pursuing a cautious Covid safety policy. The cast are safely bubbled with one another and extensively tested, and regulations have been lifted; but it’s a long while since I’ve seen so much spit-laden, in-your-face shouting and singing in a performance, much of it delivered within spraying-distance of the audience.
For those comfortable with that, though, this show offers a powerful sense of reconnection with a young working-class male energy that barely seems to have changed at all, in these last 25 years; a world of violence and threats of violence, of addiction and the struggle to avoid it, and of constant fierce economic stress, all lifted by a strong if slightly evasive strand of dark humour. And whatever the message, the performances from the seven-strong cast are searingly powerful; not least from Scott-Dunn himself as Deeks, Sands Stirling as his “radge” brother Tony, and Ella Stokes as Mags the barmaid, the only woman in the story, but one who gives as good as she gets, in a hilariously incomprehensible estuary twang.
There’s a much more nuanced vision of life in Hibs country, though, in Redcap Theatre’s Moonlight On Leith, at the Space Triplex in Hill Place. Staged by a group of recent Napier University graduates, the play – by Laila Noble and Emilie Robson – was inspired by the recent campaign to save Leith Walk from yet more student housing development; but it sidesteps agitprop, and instead draws inspiration from reflective and poetic texts like Under Milk Wood or Wilder’s Our Town, in evoking the many faces of contemporary Leith, both raw and gentrified.
Director Debi Pirie’s young company perhaps need to raise the volume and energy a little, in the wide-open space of Space Triplex, to give this beautiful and thoughtful text its full impact. Yet Moonlight On Leith still emerges as a deeply enjoyable hour of theatre, full of love for Leith, and for the multi-layered complexity of the place and its people; and for the startling beauty that sometimes settles over it, in sunshine, or by moonlight.
Sweet FA and 1902 until 30 August; Moonlight On Leith until 27 August
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