The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Tuesday 29th January, 2019
This latest production from Gritty Theatre is the brand-new piece from Michael Southan, and it’s quite a departure from his earlier play, Fred & Ginger but no less enjoyable. It’s a kind of play-within-a-play, with three cast members walking on, carrying cardboard boxes to add to those already on stage. They announce they’re going to do a spot of pub theatre and tell us a story called Hoppers and it’s football-related – Hoppers are ‘groundhoppers’, fans who try to attend matches at a number of stadiums throughout the season. That’s what I gather, anyway; I could be mistaken.
And so, there’s plenty of fourth-wall breaking as the three narrate, often speaking in verse like a scaled-down Greek chorus, using their physicality and versatility to set the scene. They recruit a plant (well, a woman) from the audience to be the protagonist. This is Sal (played by Michelle Jennings) a foul-mouthed barmaid whose father has just died, thus triggering a quest. The retrieval of a missing away kit drives the plot, as Sal goes from pillar to post, and club to club, meeting oddball characters and meeting their demands so she can track down the precious relic and complete her late father’s collection. Jennings does a good line in exasperation as the beleaguered barmaid; Sally learns there was more to her dad than she ever knew.
Appearing as her father, as well as a host of other characters including boring Tony off the radio, is the rather protean Conor Nolan, whom I cannot fault. Equally committed are Amy Anderson and Danny Milwain (who seems to be constantly snacking on something, whatever role he’s playing, including at one point an entire cucumber. You don’t see that every day.) Director Dominic Thompson gives them plenty of business which they pull off with precision and skill. The presentation is sharp, slick and sassy, reminding me of early work by Godber with the added four-letter words of Berkoff, and while there is some lovely writing here, the form tends to overshadow the content at times.
There is much to enjoy here: a slow-motion skittles event, for example, and some perfectly timed reactions. The local accents (instant comedy!) and local references strike home, even if in my ignorance I don’t appreciate the whole non-league football theme.
As items are unpacked from the ever-present boxes, Sal learns and we learn that there is more to our parents than their role as our parents – they are people too, with ambitions, interests and histories we would do well to learn about while there’s time.
Funny, with its heart and its theatricality on the sleeves of its football strip, Hoppers is both simple and sophisticated, almost mythic in its storytelling, and entertainingly enacted by an energetic ensemble.