wed 23/04/2014

Total Football, Barbican | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Total Football, Barbican

More Beckett than Beckham, a comic play about national identity

'Total Football' is not a play about football (or not totally): Theatre company Ridiculusmus play up
'Total Football' is not a play about football (or not totally): Theatre company Ridiculusmus play up

Which came first? The low national self-esteem or the shit national football team? Is it possible, in the interests of blending in with one’s countrymen, to stimulate in oneself a love of the beautiful game? And can Britishness be boiled down to an application test? Total Football, from the two-man company Ridiculusmus, is a fleet-footed comedy which investigates the shifting parameters of what it means to belong in a country where symbols of national pride are hard to come by. Unless you count Wayne Rooney.

The drama, to be reductive about a playful, shape-shifting think piece, involves an initiative by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to bring Britain together and avert national disaster by creating a British football team to represent us all in the 2012 Olympics. The mission is to Make Britain Happy, echoing all too clearly that pat Cleggian platitude about Making Britain Better. A more linear comedy would look into the unfolding implications of the campaign, but Ridiculusmus are more interested in the Orwellian absurdity of government meddling in such matters.

Hilariously, the bureaucrat charged with fronting the initiative – he’s called Brian Messenger – has zero interest in, knowledge of or feel for football. (Speaking as a lapsed fanatic who has been trying to forget everything he ever knew about the game, I’m on his side.) Nor can he blend in and fake an estuarine accent. He also, he frankly admits, is infertile, much to the violent chagrin of his wife. What possible contribution can such a man make to his country if he can neither replenish the population nor explain the offside rule?

totalfootball-4021_1280x853The title of the play written and performed by Jon Haynes and David Woods (pictured right) is misleading in the sense that it’s not totally about football. (In case you want to know, it puns on the fluid and versatile style of play of the same name adopted by the great Dutch sides of the 1970s.) This is more about the insidious way in which football has become the sum signifier of our national identity, what with Captain Scott and Winston Churchill no longer doing the trick. It’s worth reporting that, in order not to frighten the horses, the play has been cleansed of several nods to the more notorious footballing incidents of blessed memory that remain in the programme script. So you can relax. It’s more Beckett than Beckham (although the boy David does enjoy a brief cameo.) There are also absurdist hints of Havel.

In a bare unfurnished room, Haynes and Woods play a small cast of characters, among them a Pakistani thinking of become British, an Algerian mugging up on our poetry for what he calls the “citizenshit” test, even briefly Sir Alex Ferguson. The performances are balletically lithe, lush with both physical detail and vocal nuance, and the laughs come along frequently. Some passages of play are poetry in motion. If Total Football falls short (and at 70 interval-free minutes it's much shorter than a regular game of two halves), it’s that the play is so committed to keeping up the hectic pace that a coherent shape is sometimes difficult to spot. A bit like watching England. Only funnier (but in a mostly good way).

The performances are balletically lithe, lush with both physical detail and vocal nuance, and the laughs come along frequently

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