Brighton ‘Til I Die – July 2011

10/10

By: Paul Hodson and Dave Blake

Directed by: Paul Hodson

Produced by: The Future Is Unwritten & Fuel

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 28th July 2011

Crystal Palace fans, look away now. Portsmouth and Southampton fans, read no more. This was an emotional rollercoaster ride through the history of the south coast’s greatest football team, Brighton and Hove Albion, concentrating on their recent difficulties, and culminating in the building of the newest, most beautiful ground in the Championship, nay, the whole football league – the Amex community stadium at Falmer. The audience participated brilliantly, and it was an evening not to be missed.

I’ll come clean right away – my credentials as a Brighton supporter are pretty weak. I saw a few matches at the Goldstone ground – they were mostly boring – including some reserve team matches, then Gillingham was too far for me – well done those who kept going – but I did catch some of the Withdean matches – rubbish again – until the arrival of Gus Poyet. The first match I saw them play under his management was the Tranmere game towards the end of the 2009/10 season, and I was thrilled. This was proper football at last, and with a new stadium on the way, I was hooked. A season ticket for me, please.

The story was told by five characters, starting with two of them, Gerbil (Jem Wall) and Southy (Steve North). Friends since school, they had watched Brighton play from the 70s onwards – well, Gerbil had, Southy took the rest of the 80s off after the 1983 Cup final – and the play was structured around their memories of the highs and, sadly, the deep, deep lows in Brighton’s fortunes.

After Gerbil’s initial attempt to create some kind of chronological order to the piece, Southy’s freer approach saved us from a long lecture on the dry details of Albion’s history. He got into an imaginary car to recreate the tension-filled journey to Hereford for the fateful game in 1997 when Brighton needed a point to stay in the league, and Hereford needed the win. After his initial reluctance, Gerbil joined him, and our journey began. Other flashbacks came thick and fast – their first meeting, the matches they saw when they were kids, getting into the North stand as they got older and eventually being able to see the game once they’d grown up. Still they kept coming back to that trip to Hereford, and the feelings it generated. Would the Albion survive at all if they dropped to the Conference?

As a bit of light relief, Mr Albion (Mark Brailsford) came on in military gear but with a large pair of underpants over his shorts,  barked out various commands to get the other two off his stage, and then proceeded to give us some of the historical information from the beginning of the club to WWII. Gerbil and Southy helped him out at times, and he came on again later to fill in more of the gap between the war and the start of the lads’ story. His helmet was magical; when anyone wore it they became a fount of knowledge about the Albion, so of course Gerbil didn’t need it.

Between Mr Albion and the lads, we got the story up to the 1983 FA Cup final and replay before the interval. Southy went off into fantasyland for a bit, imagining for all of us what would have happened if Smith had scored. This included the decline of Manchester United, who end up ground sharing with Macclesfield, while Brighton went on to win the Premiership title and achieve European glory. Sadly, it’s all a dream, and the others bring him back to reality. By this time we’ve also met Anna (Ann Penfold), Gerbil’s mother, and Susan (Beth Fitzgerald), a friend from their schooldays who marries Southy in one of the funniest wedding ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

Southy agrees to marry Susan on Saturday 16th April 1983, because there’s no chance that Brighton will get to the FA Cup semi-final. When the day arrives, Southy, Susan and Gerbil are in the church and at the reception, while Anna describes the action at the match. Gerbil has his earpiece in, and comes out with the most appropriately inappropriate exclamations during the service and afterwards, including shouting ‘Jimmy Case’ in response to the minister asking ‘If anyone knows of any just impediment…’ etc. His best man speech is seriously affected by comments about blowing the whistle, and his delirious closing statement about these two one-derful people is understood by Southy leading to some raucous celebrations between the two men, while completely ignoring poor Susan. It was hilariously funny, and made me glad I married Steve in the off season.

The second half started with Mark Brailsford singing his own version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, suitably adapted for the Albion. It was a great beginning, and then we were into the post-‘glory’ years followed by The Troubles. Anna was one of those who believed that A____ and B______ (I can’t bring myself to fill in the blanks) were doing their best for the club, and it took some time before she saw the light. B______ eventually accused her of being a troublemaker when she tried to talk to him about the planned changes; she became very angry, and joined the campaign to save the club from Laurel and Hardy, as they were portrayed at a meeting with supporters. Her conversion was complete when she yelled out ‘Fuck off, you fucking bastards’ as the pair drove by a protest line, a sentiment which was warmly received by the audience.

Events came thick and fast now. The ‘riot’ at the York City match was covered, and at last the FA stopped doing FA and actually took some action. The Fans United match v Hartlepool in February 1997 was next up. Lots of club shirts were lowered down at the back, while the cast talked us through the match and the amazing feeling of so many football supporters coming together to show their solidarity in the face of the threats to their clubs – Brighton wasn’t the only club suffering from greedy and inept owners, then or now.

At long last we came to the fateful match against Hereford, and saw it through the eyes of all five characters. Mr Albion became the hitchhiker that Gerbil and Southy picked up on the way to the match, Anna was also at the ground and Susan listened to the match on her radio while sitting in the deserted Goldstone ground along with some other supporters. In some ways, that was the most moving part, hearing her description of the effect the game was having on those lost souls wandering around the old stands. I cry easily, anyway, and this was several hankies worth of emotion on its own.

I gather that the original version of this play ended with Albion’s win at Hereford, but this version brought us up-to-date in a very effective way. Using boxes, signs, placards, etc., and to the strains of Praise You by Fatboy Slim, they covered the final loosening of Archer’s grip from the Albion’s throat, the arrival of Dick Knight, the long years of public enquiry, ministerial approval, public enquiry, etc., etc., leading finally to the building of the new stadium, the changeover to Tony Bloom’s leadership, and the prospect of a better future for the team and us, the supporters. It was a great finish, and with the first big match about to happen at the Amex, a great way to start the new era.

The set was very simple. There were three sets of tiered standing, with the central portion representing the north stand at the Goldstone. Sheets of fabric hung down at the back, and pictures and video were projected onto these, although as there were gaps between the sheets the picture quality wasn’t fantastic. Never mind, it was only done to jog people’s memories of what had happened – this wasn’t Match Of The Day.  For the final sequence, showing the time-lapse building of the Amex, an extra strip of fabric was lowered down so the pictures could be seen properly. Masks were used to represent the various real-life characters in the story, and I did like the relay race where the baton was passed from Dick Knight to Tony Bloom, especially as Knight was reluctant to let go of it at first.

All the performances were absolutely fantastic – congratulations to all involved. The audience response was terrific as well, of course, and I found I was much more involved than I had expected. Although I’d suffered vicariously through the terrible times, I went to this show thinking it would be more for my husband, and that I wouldn’t get much out of it. I was so wrong. The cathartic effect of seeing the story played out, and being able to cheer and boo, was as healing for me as it was for many. I arrived the wife of a Brighton supporter, but I left a died-in-the-wool (or should that be feather?) Seagull fan! Up the Albion!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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