Everyone has a story about football. Some are ecstatic stories of belonging and exhilaration and primal self-identification with your team: their failures are your failures, their triumphs make your blood surge. And some involve being stuck on the sidelines, reeling at the reek of someone else’s sweaty gym kit, getting shut out of a sport that’s ‘not for girls’. Lee Simpson, a founding member of Improbable, wants to tell a story that falls into the first category. He’s a self-confessed football addict whose love of the game is amplified, given historical weight, by its identification with the story of Matthias Sindelar, an Austrian footballer who defied the Nazis by scoring goals against the German team. But when Simpson decides to tell Sindelar’s story using a ‘diverse’ female cast, they stage a rebellion, contesting who gets to own this pitch in a wickedly funny, dancing surge of energy.
Improbable’s working methods make this rebellion possible. The Paper Man is a devised piece, and the potential of its form is realised in a show that’s stuffed with subversive, tangled complexity. The story of Sindelar appears, flickers, and vanishes. It’s mixed in with other narratives. Like Jess Mabel-Jones’ story of spending her teenage years waiting for boys to finish football, cold and damp in Croydon sports club. Or Anna-Maria Nabirye’s experience of being put off playing football by a school that steered girls towards sports that kept them unmuddy, unsweaty – followed by her triumphant march across a school playground claimed by football-playing boys, her head held high.
In this context, Sindelar’s famous goal-scoring stand against the Nazis becomes more complicated. Was it a brave act of principle – or just an outbreak of ego-led stubbornness? His defiance caused both his own death, and that of his un-heroed female lover. Vera Chok becomes this forgotten woman, her earlier energy lost as she’s enveloped in a sheet of billowing plastic. It’s a visual statement that ties into the shadow puppetry that’s used to evoke Sindelar’s lost Vienna, a place of poverty, creative vibrancy and rising Nazism given poignancy and atmosphere by Adrienne Quartly’s live cello. This romantic performance language rubs up against the immediacy of Vera, Jess and Anna-Maria’s own approaches, their brilliant, sweaty dance routines and blunt monologues, in a way that gives the performance a sense of exciting friction, and an episodic feel. It feels like a work-in-progress, not in the sense of being unfinished, but of being unfinishable – there’s too much here to be sewn up like a rag football.
The Paper Man makes difference visible, and digs into the stories of its female cast members. A question I have – without being sure of the answer – is whether it digs too far? Are women (especially working class women, queer women, women of colour) expected to share more of themselves? A section where audience members could ask the performers a series of personal questions felt like it was crossing a line, putting their lives up for consumption by curious audience members without quite interrogating where that curiosity comes from.
By comparison, Lee occupies the unquestioned position of ‘normal’ white man – mainstream culture’s default. It’s exciting to watch him be subsumed: his narrative cut off by ’90s pop songs that he can only awkwardly Dad-dance to, or subverted by the marginal voices that live around it. And his beloved Sindelar is supplemented by the story of inter-war female champion footballer Lily Parr, whose story is told first in a hilarious ironic version of paternalistic sports guff, before becoming a joyful tribute to her hard-drinking, aggressive, decorum-defying stardom.
This show is so full of moments that make you squirm, and think, and rethink. It’s theoretically about football, but at its heart is the idea of giving up space, and what it means for Lee to let go of the story he wants to tell and to hand it over to women with stories of their own. Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, it makes the conditions under which it was produced visible, engages with them, exposes unpalatable truths and unshiftable hierarchies. Sitting in Norwich’s Puppet Theatre, a medieval church converted into a venue that’s stuffed to the rafters with three decades worth of comical stuffed figures, it felt special to watch a show that felt so completely apart from the trad hierarchies of producer-director-actor, so completely of the current cultural moment of openness and interrogation. But if this sounds worthy let it be known that it also felt entirely joyful, full of the banter and camaraderie that should or could come from loving football: team spirit, channelled into something new and much more needed.
This review of ‘The Paper Man’ is from its run as part of 2018’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. It plays London’s Soho Theatre from 12th Feb to 9th March 2019. More info and tickets here.