One of the best scenes in the much-derided Saint George and the Dragon at the National Theatre last fall was when George, having wandered into the present day, watched a football match. He was delighted to see these warriors bearing his cross on their shirts, fighting for the glory of their country. In football, George found a spirit of unity and shared purpose that he thought had utterly vanished from the world.
Of course, it’s England, so then they lost.
As with any sporting event that has athletes compete in the name of their country, it’s a short skip from there to viewing them as the country: their successes somehow belonging to everyone, and their failure’s everyone’s, too. It’s honestly staggering to imagine, to have your professional and personal and national identities all laid on top of each other: if you fail, it’s not only personally upsetting and professionally difficult, it’s also somehow a reflection on your entire country. It’s a ridiculous amount to ask one person to bear.
It’s a similar rhetorical weight to that frequently forced upon marginalised groups in fiction. Theatre is continually guilty of tokenisation—the gay friend, the black friend, the one woman— an emblem forced to represent an entire group of people and thus inevitably criticised for doing it wrong. That’s part of why representation is so important, so any one depiction doesn’t have to stand for everyone. When the time comes to tell a marginalised group’s story, however, I really empathise with writers who are visibly struggling under the weight of that expectation: this might be the only story that gets told, after all, so they’d better tell it all, and tell it well. Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish’s football-centric play Offside shows the strain of this weight.
Now embarking on a site-specific tour of football stadiums in London and beyond, Offside is the story of two historical female footballers, Lily Parr and Emma Clarke, and two contemporary players who draw inspiration from these figures, and whose lives mirror theirs. It’s a lot for a 75-minute play to handle. Each storyline is so rich with potential that it’s frustrating to feel like all of them have been given short shrift. I want to know every single detail about how a daughter of escaped slaves became a professional player in 19th century Scotland, Fizz Waller’s Lily is so charming and fully-formed that she could fill a two-hour biographical drama of her own, and the budding friendship between two young players longing for and England call-up glances so tantalisingly at the many difficulties and contradictions of the women’s game today that I could only wish it could all be dealt with in more depth. The recent high-profile controversy about racism in the English women’s national team made the lack of a frank discussion about race feel particularly conspicuous.
But there I am, placing that unfair weight on one play’s shoulders. The many plot threads, however, and the sweeping statements about the women’s game and its meaning invite these expectations. The creative team seem to want the play to be everything, to do justice—as one of the characters suggests—to these remarkable women of history. But the best parts of the play are those least like a history lesson. There’s a fascinating tension between the play’s strongest elements: on the one hand, the very impressionistic, its use of joyful bursts of music and chanting, poetic riffs and refrains, collages of the players’ media training. But equally compelling is when it becomes most quirky and down-to-earth, as when Lily Parr riffs on all the other labour she hopes women will be banned from if football is considered too much for their weak constitutions, or the growing friendship between the two young England players as they ping between determination and uncertainty, ambition and fear. The energetic, eager cast of three bridges the gap between these aesthetics well. There’s so much good—so much, in fact, that each element deserves more.
‘We are more than just football players,’ one of the characters declares late on. And they are. But players aren’t playing that transcendence. They’re just playing football—an opportunity they have to earn first. So I want this play to do well. I want it to earn opportunities for other plays (or even future versions of this very play) to do better, to be able to set out to tell stories knowing they won’t have to bear the weight of being the only one.
Offside is on tour until 30th June. Full dates here.