21 September 2017.
After developing the concept of a ‘football opera’ with fans in Belgium, and then recreating it in other European cities, the directors of We’re Not Really Here (Yahya terryn, Oliver Roels and Gilles De Schryver) bring the show to Manchester for its English premiere.
In each city they work with a cast of local football fans. It would be interesting to know how the decision over which of Manchester’s clubs would be featured was arrived at but it’s a blue moon that shines over Contact this week.
It’s a simple but unusual premise. In a neat role reversal the audience sit on the stage and face the theatre’s seating area. As it fills up with supporters we get to watch them from this unique perspective.
The show kicks off with a lone supporter (Vincent Dugdale) having a fractious phone conversation with his wife. A steward passes by, picking up litter, and she greets him by name. A young man comes on as ‘Right Here, Right Now‘ blasts out – with a look of great intensity he smears his face with paint, one half blue and the other side white. As he assembles a flag, other supporters start to dribble in and then more pour down the stairs. Some are in search of their favourite seats, others catch up on gossip and some even talk about the game and predict the result. Routine, ritual and relationships. It’s a powerful surge of energy and you feel engulfed within it. And the game hasn’t even begun..
Accompanied by a big loud drum, it’s an incredibly noisy experience throughout with only fleeting moments of quiet. One of those is early on, when in a touching reminder of the powerful bond football can create in a city, the crowd stand silent for a minute to remember those affected by the Manchester Arena attack. Later we get to see the crowd in a moment of contemplation as they all sit and just simply watch the game.
For the most part there is chanting, singing and dancing. The crowd react to a game that is being shown on a screen behind us. We experience their disbelief, frustration, joy and celebration. In the midst of these collective highs and lows there are also opportunities to hear small groups or individuals speak. There are mixed motives for being there, not all of the crowd are full-on football fans. One woman has studied YouTube videos to learn the words for all the chants in an attempt to revive her relationship with her football-loving husband. An 80-year-old rugby fan is taking photos and recording messages for his wife who is stuck in hospital and furious at missing the game. And we aren’t the only observers, there is a sniffy anthropologist in the crowd who has come to see the working class in their natural environment. Like us, those three can’t help but get caught up in the crowd’s ferocious enthusiasm.
Subtly comic moments pop up now and then. A moment of celebration is transformed into a marathon-like challenge as fans compete to see who can keep showing their support the longest. And a young woman’s prediction that she will get hit by the ball is unexpectedly fulfilled in a moment of graceful silent comedy.
It’s staged simply, almost cinematically. A rectangular spotlight frames the bank of seats and for the most part the characters don’t move from that space or even their allocated seating area. We observe their reactions individually and collectively, there is so much to see. The sea of blue shirts is visually striking against the block of red seats but that contrast between red and blue is also a constant reminder of the city’s divided club loyalties.
The football fans themselves are a joy to watch. The crowd consists of an almost equal balance of women and men, as well as six children. While there are a few recognisable faces from other community involvement projects, and a strong presence from both the Contact and Royal Exchange’s young companies, the cast are not professional actors. However, beyond the odd fumbled word, and in this instance a very dramatic tumble-down the stairs, it all works wonderfully. From young to old, the supporters sustain an incredible level of energy for the full show. You’d think some of the chanting and the singing would descend in to cliché but when a young girl hesitantly starts to sing ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger‘ and everyone gradually joins in, football fan or not, it’s difficult to deny the powerful reaction that such moments can provoke when experienced together.