I like to think I come from one of the best cities in the world. Manchester is more than home for me: it’s my friend, my confidant, my tribe, my clan. On hearing about Monkeywood Theatre’s latest project, By Far The Greatest Team – a collection of plays based in, performed in and about my home city – I had to see it.
By Far The Greatest Team is a showcase of four plays all directed by self proclaimed football fan Martin Gibbons. Although each 45 minute piece is a separate story, they all have one thing in common – football. The stories are grounded in the fandom of arguably two of the biggest football teams in the world – Manchester City and Manchester United. One city, two teams. The biggest rivalry in football. And growing up in Manchester, there is only one decision you need to make – red or blue?
By Far The Greatest Team uses the city’s rich football culture as a vehicle for the very real, human relationships that propel each narrative. Each play is an exploration into what it’s like to grow up as a football fan in Manchester. The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre is transformed into a football stadium – the constructed thrust stage is an astro turf football pitch and the only entrance is a runway for the players. Manchester classics such as The Stone Roses and Joy Division bookend the performances and there is a buzz of anticipation and jeers of support from audience members wearing their team scarves. For a minute I have to double check I’m still in a theatre.
Ian Kershaw’s We’re Not Really Not Here looks at the tragedy of the 1958 Munich air disaster in which most of the Manchester United team were killed, through the eyes of a rival fan. David Judge’s portrayal of City fan Sam is energetic, passionate and viciously unapologetic. Sauntering around the stage with a potent arrogance, he empties his pint and crushes it against his head before breaking out into a taunting chant about the events of 1958. Merrill Scholfield’s character Helen serves as a powerful reminder of the true spirit of football fandom.
Lindsay Williams’ play Stretford End is a hilarious and touching drama centred around a divorced couple who have one thing they cannot decide final custody over – their Manchester United season tickets. Set during Alex Ferguson’s last match as United’s manager, Stretford End is uplifting, heartfelt and brilliantly funny.
Andrew Sheridan’s The Good, The Bad and the Giggsy is a brilliant battle of the wits between oddball exes Albion (Sheridan) – a die hard United fan in devil horns, shorts pulled up ridiculously high – and Eileen (Shameless’s Samantha Siddall), a City fan who commandeers the stage in a mobility scooter and wooly hat. Hurling hilarious abuse at each other, the disenchanted lovers bicker, reminisce and, of course, argue about football. Sheridan’s writing is beautifully witty, raucous and sincere.
Finally Sarah Macdonald Hughes’s Only Football is a touching story of 25 year old Abi (Macdonald Hughes) and her estranged father (Mark Jordon) and their unexpected outing to a Manchester City match. This is a story that demonstrates the healing power a simple game of football can have on a neglected relationship.
Each of the plays showcased in By Far The Greatest Team capture the honesty and integrity of true football fans and the strong, dedicated human spirits underneath. The collection of writing boasts a broad portrait of the types of football fan – the rivals, the friends, the relationships and the families. The game is the foundation on which all these characters mould and bond. For these people, football is part of their identity, their genetics. It’s the language of the people of Manchester and it is beautiful.
The Mancunian sense of belonging and community is one of endearing strength, grit and love. There’s a lyric by local Manchester band Elbow that sums up coming home and feeling the knowing welcome of the city: ‘I don’t know what I want but I know when I’m low that I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.’ If you’re from the North, or if you’re a football fan, or even if you’ve seen one football game in your life, By Far The Greatest Team knows exactly what you’re like and welcomes you with open arms, a big grin and a pat on the back.
By Far The Greatest Team is playing at The Lowry Theatre until 20 September. For tickets and more information visit The Lowry Theatre website. Photo by The Lowry Theatre.