Michael Pinchbeck’s The Ashes returns to Nottingham Playhouse two years after its first production, timed to coincide with the opening of the 2013 series at Trent Bridge. The play is at once both timely and nostalgic, locally and internationally relevant, and yet, unlike last year’s similarly pitched but more specific Diary of a Football Nobody, lacks the dramatic hook that would make it truly effective.
The Ashes tells the story of the 1932-33 test series in Australia, during which Douglas Jardine’s team pioneered ‘leg theory’ bowling (criticised by opponents as ‘bodyline’) and caused controversy on both continents. Focusing on the preparation for the series, the pressure on the English team to change tactics for diplomatic reasons, and the fallout for the key players afterwards, the play is ambitious in scope, and Giles Croft’s direction frequently lives up to this. Archive video footage and still images play on a screen above the stage, and the live actors mirror it, animating the black and white figures.
While the recreation of period mannerisms is fascinating, however, the play feels at least half an hour too long. Crucially, neither Pinchbeck or Croft seems quite sure which story to tell. The play comes alive during the test series, as Jamie de Courcey’s gentleman captain Jardine defies the club’s manager Plum (Robin Bowerman), his British reserve finally cracking in defiance as his focus on winning overrides questions of honour and reputation. Karl Haynes’s fast bowler and pit miner Harold Larwood, meanwhile, becomes the scapegoat for Australian and British anger, finally selling his story to the papers after being pressured to make a formal apology for following orders. The class dynamic is compelling, flicking between the desire of the Larwoods to retire quietly to Blackpool and the champagne-swilling ballrooms of the MCC.
As soon as the series is over, however, there is a fall into sentimentality, assuming an investment in characters that has not entirely been earned as Harold is tempted to move to Australia and Jardine dies unhappily offstage in a series of dull staged conversations. The question of class slips from prominence, and the production switches tack once more to finish on a final assertion of sportsmanship that sits oddly. While blame is clearly placed on the reprehensible Jardine, driven by ambition, Haynes’s sympathetic performance as Larwood cannot make sense of a script that skips freely between bluff diffidence, loyal support of the captain, media savvy and emotional distance from his devoted wife.
This is a biography seen in flashes, and Croft’s preference for verbatim-style scenes of forwardfacing narration becomes frustrating. Choral deliveries of the five famous telegrams between the Australian and English team managements are effective, and there are flashes of real directorial invention. An overhead camera showing a tabletop illustration of the controversial tactics is essential for inducting the audience, and the dressing room sequences bristle with tension as Plum attempts to make peace with the Australian team while refusing to offer the apology on behalf of Jardine he clearly thinks is deserved. Elsewhere, however, the short scenes fall into a repetitive rhythm: Larwood and Voce stand and drink, Plum and Jardine stand and whisper while watching offstage practice, Lois stands and reads out Larwood’s letters. The scenes of extended mime feel overlong and a little pointless, particularly a sequence in which two characters attempt to open an invisible door. It is perhaps telling that the most audible reactions of excitement in the audience are to the archive footage of the test matches.
Despite all this, when on form The Ashes is a triumph. The central sequence of the tour builds genuine tension as the buttoned-up English and the increasingly aggressive Australians come into conflict, and the bar scenes between Timothy Knightley’s Australian Jack and the two working-class English bowlers, barely concealing their pleasure at the injuries inflicted on their opponents, bring the tensions to a head. Leaving the play on the bittersweet and contested victory would have made for a much more satisfactory and challenging end. However, despite an unfocused conclusion, this local play acts as a fine entry point for the real dramatic excitement of a cricket series that even concerned Roosevelt.