Sweet FA: 'It's a prime time to tell this story'

It drew big crowds, then women’s football was banned for half a century. Now a new play is shining a light on its history

An archive photo of a women's football team used on the poster for Sweet FA

First presented at the Fringe in 2018, and proving so popular that it returned the following year, A War of Two Halves was the stuff that many of the most endearing Edinburgh successes are made of. A promenade theatre performance around Heart of Midlothian FC’s Tynecastle Park ground in the west of the city, it told the story of McCrae’s Battalion, the group of Hearts players (and those of other clubs) who signed up en masse – and in many cases, died – for the British Army during the First World War.

“It was phenomenal,” says writer and producer Tim Barrow of the show’s success. “We really felt the responsibility of telling the story, it’s one that every Hearts fan knows, and it’s widely known in Edinburgh. We managed to get Fringe audiences as well as the local Gorgie and wider Hearts community, a lot of the people who came to the show were probably seeing theatre for the first time. Of course, there’s pressure every time you do a show, but we want to shoulder that responsibility again, and make a good piece of theatre that we think audiences will really enjoy.”

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Originally planned for 2020’s pandemic-cancelled festival, Sweet F.A. is the follow-up to A War of Two Halves, co-written by Barrow and Paul Beeson, and directed by Bruce Strachan (all three are theatre-makers, Hearts fans and old friends). It tells of the early development of women’s football in Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century, including the rather startling fact that the game was banned by British F.A.s (Football Associations) exactly 100 years ago - a rule only rescinded 50 years later.

“We started digging into research about the women’s game in Scotland, Paul did the bulk of that,” says Barrow. “In the late 19th century it was really popular, then it fizzled out, largely because of lack of support from football authorities. Then during the First World War, we discovered the rise of women’s factory football teams, because a lot of women helped with the war effort while the men were away fighting. In Fountainbridge, not far from Tynecastle, the North British Rubber Company made welly boots for the soldiers in France, and so we took this as inspiration for a group of women who work together and form a football team.

“They’re going through a war while their loved ones are away fighting, they’re dealing with the loss and death of that war, and they keep playing football. That’s what keeps them together. At the end of the war the men came back, lots of women lost their jobs, but they carried on playing football, and the women’s game just got more and more popular.

“They were drawing huge crowds, it was an incredibly fast-growing sport – then came the Spanish flu pandemic, and the FA actually banned the women’s game in 1921. It’s just shocking what they did, pure misogyny, the reasons made no sense at all. It seems a prime time to tell this story, as women’s football appears to be thriving at the moment, which is long overdue.”

For Covid reasons, rather than a promenade performance this time, the audience will be spaced out in the stadium’s main stand, while a company named ASC Limited have provided a specially-built scaffolding stage for the nine female performers – including actors Ria McLeod, Rachel Millar, Lucy Pedersen and Heather Cochrane, who have been involved with the production’s development from the start. The show also features new music by Matthew Brown.

“After the impact of the last two years, it feels absolutely brilliant to be able to bring people together to tell important stories,” says Barrow. “Audiences can meet beforehand, have a drink, and sit and experience something, and hopefully laugh and cry and have a really good evening out.”

Sweet F.A. is at Tynecastle Park, 5-29 August (not 13-16 or 20-23). www.thisismystoryproductions.co.uk