There are two reviews for the new Custom House production Bobby Robson Saved My Life, and they are running in parallel in my head.
There’s a review in which I dispassionately dissect a pretty decent if not particularly memorable play, assessing its strengths and weaknesses.
But there’s a review where I am in a theatre full of strangers and we’re all crying about a man most of us never met, but all of us feel we knew.
There’s a review where I praise writer Tom Kelly and director Jamie Brown for a moving and often amusing production that taps into the appeal of a beloved figure without giving in too much to sentimentality, though in which I note the piece is unadventurous and a little overlong.
But there’s a review where I remember walking uphill against a downward flowing sea of monochrome because I was coming back to a place I no longer lived and had forgotten it was match day, and the whole city was heading in the opposite direction. For a moment I would simply stand and let the wave of people take me, homesickness writ large in human form. Mams and dads, grandads and grandmas with young boys and girls, Hovis-wholesome in their home strips: the unmistakable unity of a one-team town, with no internecine battles between one part of the city and another. No red versus blue rivalry, here: just black and white as far as you looked. Everybody wanting a win, even if we didn’t expect it – it’s Newcastle, after all, our trophy case as empty as a politician’s promise. But today might be the day, it really might, and until then there are pies to be eaten and pints to be drunk and stories to be told of big men and better days.
There’s a review in which I commend Charlie Richmond, Donald McBride and Sam Neale for their personable and sympathetic performances as three generations who had differing levels of contact with Robson: as a friend, as a player, as a fan. Where I praise Gareth Hunter and Jamie Brown’s smart design, a clever integration of terraces and home that reflects the merging of the domestic and the public in the play. Where I recognise that the production takes pains not just to comment on Robson’s football career, but also his charitable legacy and the lives it has saved (the Bobby Robson Foundation has raised millions to fund research into cancer treatment).
But there’s a review in which the mention of drinking in the Strawberry brings an ‘ah’ of recognition from the audience, one that I join in. Where we are lost in a communal golden moment when Shearer was a Northern God, as brilliant on the pitch as he is bland off it, and Gazza was a great future hope instead of a tragi-comic tabloid clown, and we knew that when ‘Uncle Bobby’ comforted his crying, really he was comforting us all.
There’s a review in which I compare this to other footballing plays – unnaturally sparse as they are, given the game’s prominence in our national psyche – and it comes up a little short. While not quite a hagiography, it’s also no The Damned United: no psychological insight into a complex man is on offer here, just a fond commentary on decency and the impact that can have.
But there’s a review in which I am 18 years old in a dark and sweaty nightclub and I’m dancing unironically in a room packed with people I worry are way cooler than me and we’re singing to World In Motion and we somehow know all of the words and we’re even shouting out the John Barnes bits, and for one night, just one night, we aren’t too nerdy or too fat or too queer for sports, and everyone is allowed to join in.
There’s a review in which I mention this play draws on the #3wordsforBobby social media campaign that asked members of the public to share their memories of Robson, and which saw comment from stars ranging from Shearer to Sting. A review in which I mention that it’s almost ironic that something that seeks to get to the heart of the man and what he meant never seems to get past the surface of the smiling ‘gentleman Geordie’ (Robson was actually born in County Durham, but was long ago claimed by its flashier neighbour as one of its own). And I comment that anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Robson will leave the play knowing not much more than they did when they went in.
But there’s a review where I ask, can’t we just keep this one nice thing, this one good man, when the whole world is fire and shit and our heroes disappoint us daily?
There are two reviews in my head, running parallel.
There’s that well-considered review in which I come to this conclusion: this is a solidly enjoyable if fairly unremarkable play. It’s well-written and well-performed; it’s funny and humane and occasionally very moving, but it does nothing particularly striking.
Then there’s the review that is me both laughing and crying over a man I didn’t know, but I felt I did, and that my city loved. And I’ll think a play about goodness and hope and the strength to keep going is the tribute he deserved.
If this play is for you, you won’t care about that first review.
Bobby Robson Saved My Life runs at The Customs House, South Shields, until 20th July. More info here.