Red Pitch

Red Pitch, a play by Tyrell Williams

We were on a rare trip to London on Wednesday afternoon and fancied going to the theatre. My daughter did a bit of googling and came up with Red Pitch at @sohoplace theatre. We had a quick look at the description – it sounded alright, and the price was alright too, so she duly booked.

As I walked along Charing Cross Road in search of a theatre too new to appear on my printed map of the West End, I pictured a small arthouse studio. From our brief scan of the details, I had in my mind a play about disaffected teenagers who dreamed of being footballers. My daughter expected a protest piece about gentrification.

The first thing I got wrong was the theatre. @sohoplace is a stylish, 602-seat venue with a sumptuous bar and a stage that’s surrounded on all four sides by tiered seating. In the case of this production, it was a perfect simulation of a football stadium. A welcoming team of front of house staff greeted us on arrival.

And my expectations of the play were way off the mark. The only two words I got right were youth (the three characters are sixteen) and football (they play the game throughout the performance). However, these teenagers are not disaffected; they have hopes and aspirations.

Omz (played by Francis Lovehall) is hopeful his apartment block will be renovated so that the lift to his fifth-floor flat will be repaired and improve access for his 81-year-old grandad.

Bilal (Kedar Williams-Stirling) aspires to being successful, dedicating himself to hours of football training to improve his chances and to win the approval of his father.

Joseph (Emeka Sesay) intends to move away and return one day to his old neighbourhood to buy up apartments.

These boys don’t just dream of being footballers; they work towards that goal, playing Sunday league and practising during the week on their local Red Pitch, so named because of the red railings around the ground. They are committed to regular practice and have the ritual of tapping the railings whenever they enter or leave the ground, a routine they temporarily abandon in an all-is-lost moment later in the story. They have talent, too, and their coach puts all three forward for trials with Queens Park Rangers. Although not keen to pursue them, they also have other options: GCSE grades mentioned are 6s and 7s, and there’s reference to Omz being good at art and Bilal at maths. Joseph has a place at college.

Despite there being only three actors on a bare stage, such is the quality of the performances and dialogue, they conjure up a whole community of family, neighbours, poorly maintained buildings and gradual renovations. I was left in no doubt the writer, Tyrell Williams, shares his characters’ affection for the neighbourhood.

Similarly, Williams has crafted his characters with genuine warmth and individuality without shying away from depicting the stroppy messiness of being sixteen.

Omz is sometimes petulant, quick to anger and prone to empty boastfulness. However, we soon learn that his opportunity to show this level of immaturity is confined to Red Pitch, as life at home is one of responsibility. He and his younger brother, Raheem, live with their grandfather. But the grandad is now suffering from dementia and Omz has become carer to both the grandfather and Raheem.

Bilal is cool, his sheer physical presence making him the central player in the group. But he has faced his share of heartache. A girl he was seeing dumped him and he never quite lives up to his father’s expectations. The father had to turn down a professional football apprenticeship at Leighton Orient due to family responsibilities and he projects his failed ambitions onto his son.

Nerdy Joseph, with a tendency to hero-worship Bilal, has been forced by the other two, since primary school, to play in goal. Unlike them, he has a plan B in his intention to study Business Law. The most affluent of the trio, he is also the most optimistic. No doubt the two facts are related. At sixteen, he is too naive to see the exploitative edge to his plan to return as a property developer. He is the least respectful of his current environment and has to be stopped by his friends from urinating on the pitch.

Nor is this a protest piece. The only note of protest occurs when Joseph expresses annoyance that his beloved chicken and chips shop has been turned into a Costa. Tyrell Williams is too good a playwright to give us banner waving. He knows his Show-Not-Tell. Having his characters observe that Esme has had to close her dry-cleaning business and that refurbished flats are going on the open market for a whopping £400,000 (by implication beyond the means of the locals), Williams lets the audience work out the effects of gentrification for themselves.

The entire play exudes energy and humour. The actors almost never stop kicking a ball around. Thankfully, they do this skilfully, avoiding the risk of audience members getting a football in the face. They and the director (Daniel Bailey) have taken care to ensure the scenes address the audience on all four sides of the auditorium. I missed the occasional line when actors had their backs to me, but that’s probably more to do with my hearing than a lack of voice projection on their part.

The medium of communication between the lads is banter. There’s even a hint of The Inbetweeners when Omz declares that he’s had girls for days but fails to provide names when pressed by the others. However, Red Pitch is not bawdy and the better for it. Less-Is-More is another tool in Tyrell Williams’s repertoire. Even swearing is kept to a minimum and brought out to great effect only at key moments.

Williams has captured the authentic speech of London teenagers, and the actors, probably a decade older than the parts they play, deliver the lines with ease. They also embody the mannerisms of the age group, bestowing each character with specific, individual body language. But neither writer nor actors descend into caricature. This play is delivered with respect and love.

We came away from the theatre entertained, energised and having learnt something both meaningful and joyful about teenage boys. As Sandra, the older white woman who gives Joseph a lift from the bus stop, would say: Blimey… I mean: Blimey.

By Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant is a British author. She writes the Gloucestershire Crime Series, published by Hobeck Books. The first title is Her Deadly Friend, and the second is Her Charming Man. Her titles with HarperCollins are: The Roommates, a psychological thriller set in a university during freshers' week; The Good Teacher, a detective mystery, featuring DC Pippa “Agatha” Adams, and The Perfect Neighbours, a psychological thriller set in Germany. Rachel studied at Aberystwyth University, spent several years living in Germany and now lives in Gloucestershire with her family. She holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

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