sat 22/06/2024

Red Pitch, @sohoplace review - the ebullient tale of teenage footballers gets a rollicking transfer | reviews, news & interviews

Red Pitch, @sohoplace review - the ebullient tale of teenage footballers gets a rollicking transfer

Red Pitch, @sohoplace review - the ebullient tale of teenage footballers gets a rollicking transfer

Focused on young life in south London, this hit is as energetic and joyful as ever

Omz (Francis Lovehall), Bilal (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and Joey (Emeka Sesay) in competition as runnersHelen Murray

The reviews of Tyrell Williams' debut play on its first and second outings at the Bush Theatre were universally enthusiastic, even ecstatic. Multiple awards followed, including a clean sweep of those for first-time or promising writers. So how does it look in the newest venue in the West End, in the round  or rather square?

The first impression is of relaxed confidence: these young men  both characters and actors (Kedar Williams-Stirling as Bilal pictured below left, Emeka Sesay as Joey and Francis Lovehall as Omz)  own this space. We the audience are welcome to eavesdrop and enjoy the jokes, but we are entering their world. On press night, before the start of the play proper, one or two even joined in the informal kick-about in designer Amelia Jane Hankin's "red pitch", with its two goal areas marked within a scarlet fenced square. And then, who should be spotted in the second row but famous player and manager John Barnes! Needless to say, the cast greeted him enthusiastically, but not to the extent that they compromised the characters they were imperceptibly becoming.

The subject here is not simply football, of course, but the aspirations and hopes, the strength of the friendship among young people  all black in this case  who live in "ends", i.e. estates at the mercy of developers. Football success is a dream, their regular practice space representing both an escape and a cage and into which they tap in a tiny ritual when they enter and leave. Eerie lighting (designed by Ali Hunter) bathes sequences of fantasy football heroics.

Kedar Williams-Stirling as BilalWilliams has said that the location and relationships were inspired by his own teenage experience in south London and everything about this play rings true. Omz has to care for his elderly granddad, Bilal has an authoritarian father and is attempting to be a YouTube star, while Joey, whose family are "doing alright", knows all about planning for the future and having a second string in the pursuit of a comfortable adult life. All three play off each other brilliantly, bantering, exchanging insults  usually good-naturedly  comparing their chances with girls. The adult cast are perfectly believable 16-year-olds, never still, full of swaggering innocence, rivals but also mutually supportive, learning the hard lessons of growing up without losing sight of what really matters. Under director Daniel Bailey's sure guidance, their comic timing and mood changes are spot-on, while a sudden dance sequence and a very real-looking (and sounding) fight are superbly choreographed, with input respectively from Gabrielle Nimo and Kev McCurdy. A study of enduring friendship in difficult circumstances could be sentimental; but the writing and performances ensure that is not the case here.

When only one of the friends gets picked to train with a major club, the cohesion of the group is threatened, but in the end it is the bulldozers and forced rehousing that bring about change. The players pledge to return to the red pitch, but there are already hints that this, too, will soon be no more.

@heathermneill 

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