New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 3rd September, 2013
This new play from John Godber is set in the overlooked and cash-strapped world of women’s rugby. I don’t know much about rugby (or women either, come to that) but that is not a barrier to accessing the plot.
Schoolteacher Maggie (Elizabeth Carling) runs a team in her spare time, a team of a diverse group of women who, frankly, could have wandered in from any other play of this type. Instead of tap-dancing, pole-dancing, posing naked for a calendar, or whatever, these women train and play rugby. Maggie feels she’s fighting a losing battle. The main (men’s) club isn’t interested in promoting the team. The local press won’t come near them. They have to make do with home-made equipment and a lack of members (so to speak).
It could have some biting things to say about women in a man’s world, about the inequalities and prejudices that still exist, but such comments as there are seem only to be sideswipes. There are only rare glimpses of the harder-edged Godber from his earlier, strongest works (Bouncers, Teechers...) when an embittered Maggie berates her own profession for spinning kids who haven’t got a chance “a yarn about achievement”.
It’s a play of two halves. The first gives us lots of short scenes in which the women train, go on the lash, raise funds in fancy dress, go for an Indian… The scenes give us a picture of these women’s lives, but don’t really develop the story until the end, when the decision is taken that they won’t close the club just yet but will switch to playing “Sevens” instead.
Between the scenes, changes are covered with bursts of loud music that would be at home in the Bouncers nightclub. Here it is jarring and incongruous, and does not match the pace or tone of the scenes themselves. A bizarre choice.
The second half is set entirely in the filthy changing room at the Sevens tournament. Each scene charts their progress through the matches. Unfortunately the same lack of passion that bedevils the team, hinders audience involvement. It’s very difficult to get behind these characters and cheer them on. At least the music during transitions is more appropriate, moody and atmospheric.
Godber has an ear for naturalistic dialogue, specialising in the obvious humour of ordinary people. This is a skill, to be sure, but the show also needs the surprise and the invention of a playwright, to lift it beyond the repetitiveness and the ordinariness.
Abi Titmuss acquits herself well as ice-maiden doctor Jess, who has a clinical approach to everything. Hayley Tamaddon is energetic as goodtime girl solicitor (!) Amber, but Claire Eden steals just about every scene as coarse, plain-speaking farm worker Donna. Eden keeps going off and coming back on as Donna’s identical twin Daisy, a vet, who is always called away to sort out a cow or a rabbit with colitis. It’s an amusing device at first but confused me in the second half. Daisy is called away when the pager in her sock goes off, reducing the squad to six. Earlier in the play they mentioned that a team had been disqualified for not having seven. But this team plays on… As I said before, I don’t know much about rugby but there seems a hole in the play’s logic here.
Another point I couldn’t grasp was Maggie’s motivation for setting up the club and keeping it going against all odds. It emerges that her sister died from a brain injury at 25 while playing rugby. Maggie runs the club in her sister’s memory. Oh. If the sister had been killed by a drunk driver, would Maggie invite women to get in their cars and go on a pub crawl? I doubt it. I suspect Maggie might campaign for improved safety on the rugby pitch, rather than invite other women to put themselves at risk. As I also said before, I don’t know much about women either.
It’s a mildly amusing couple of hours but doesn’t really go anywhere or say much. They get muddy, these women, but in their camaraderie and banter, never bitch or backstab enough to earn them the epithet ‘cows’.