Every theatre audience contains a small percentage of professionals. For every show you attend, there’s a good chance you’ll bump into somebody you toured with 20 years ago and you won’t remember their name. Most likely you’ve come to see a mutual friend in the cast, which leads to another conundrum: what do you say if it’s a shit show? You meet them in the bar afterwards, there’s the usual round of backslapping and cheek kissing, and then you have to say something. A writer of my acquaintance says her go-to remark is “what about you then?”. I favour “I thought you were very good” and, if it’s unavoidable I add, “considering the writing/set/ appalling woman in the bad wig”.
I was moved to ruminate on this when I realised that I knew both the youngest and oldest members of the cast of And Did Those Feet at Bolton Octagon, not to mention the director. If it turned out to be rubbish, I would have to do a runner.
I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t and I didn’t, although the room gave me little confidence. The Lion of Vienna hospitality suite at the Macron Stadium, where the currently homeless Octagon made its stage, has all the theatrical charm of a stadium hospitality suite ( i.e. none) and someone needs to tell the front of house team that if you have more than three rows of seats at the same level, the people behind can’t see.
Nevertheless, it’s the perfect venue, poor sight-lines notwithstanding, for a play about Bolton Wanderers winning the FA Cup in 1923. This is proper community theatre, about the community, in the community, for the community; something those of us working in the 70s and 80s often struggled to get right. The community loved it, and so did I.
Writers Les Smith and Martin Thomasson have skilfully woven the stories of individual fans onto the political events of the time – Lenin in power in Russia, the industrial lay-offs due to post-war stagflation – and immediate history. Colin Connor and Barbara Drennan, Bolton regulars both, play a husband and wife who have lost their son, Billy, played by Nathan Ives-Moiba, in the 1914-18 war. Billy was an apprentice at the Trotters and was denied his first professional outing by the call-up. His Dad hasn’t been to a match since, but his Mum needs to go.
John Askew plays Jim, a communist who is laid off, and Ciaran Griffiths is his brother Ted, an overlooker at the mill, who is kept on. Helen O’Hara, the youngest member, entirely lives up to the promise of her drama school showcase as Martha, Ted’s betrothed, and a Methodist given to handing out pamphlets. You can imagine her reaction when she learns her wedding day is also the date of the Cup Final.
I met Martin Barrass, the oldest member, in 1984 when I was running the community theatre at York Theatre Royal and he had joined the panto to play Idle Jack to Berwick Kaler’s Dame. Brave man, I thought, but his extraordinary energy, huge charm and boyish good looks made him a York Panto star and he’s still doing the role 34 years later. His boyish good looks have transmogrified to an engaging twinkle which serves him well as narrator and great Trotters fan Bob Stott who walks to every match, even Wembley, and he has the audience in his pocket.
The individual stories are woven together so well you don’t even notice, and despite some difficult material it’s extremely funny and there is a big finish that had us all rather weepily joining in. And despite the fact there wasn’t a bar (!) I waited around afterwards to tell my friends I thought they were very good, so I must have meant it.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Images by The Other Richard