I didn’t know what to expect with Fever Pitch the Opera. I had neither read the book that it’s based on, nor was I aware that there was a film until my football aficionado boyfriend told me about it while we were waiting for the show to begin. So I went into it with ‘musical about Arsenal’ as the extent of my knowledge.
Firstly, let me say that Union Chapel is a gorgeous church and an opera seems right at home in it. However, an opera about football may be unexpected. Accompanied by my very helpful Arsenal expert boyfriend, he explained all the subtle football-related touches that went unnoticed by my charlatan eyes, such as the replica of the Clock (note the capital ‘c’) that follows Arsenal any time they change stadiums – a clock so important, the south side of the stadium is now referred to as the Clock End because of where the Clock is placed.
There’s a real community feel about Fever Pitch the Opera, which makes complete sense when you know more about Highbury Opera Theatre (HOT). Created in 2011, HOT blends professional artists with the talents of the surrounding community, which is such an admirable vision. However, the more ambitious a show, the more apparent the divide is and Fever Pitch the Opera is an extremely ambitious show. Robin Bailey as Gooner, Nick Allen as Rat alongside Joanna Harries and Robert Gildon who play various important characters in Gooner’s life, give very strong performances throughout the show but their voices, especially Harries’ and Gildon’s, are especially polished in stark contrast to other members of the cast. Nevertheless, the local ensemble shines when it comes to the simpler songs and the integration of traditional chants within the book.
Scott Stroman (the composer and conductor) steals the show. He and the HOT ensemble (a 10-piece orchestra) are on the same level as the audience so it is very easy to watch them when there isn’t necessarily much happening on stage. Conducting an orchestra is hard enough; conducting an orchestra, in addition to a large ensemble dotted throughout a huge church, is a practically Herculean task, which Stroman does amazingly.
It seems only natural for Fever Pitch the Opera to be staged in Highbury and that’s extremely apparent in the audience. Because of the involvement of the local community, much of the audience know each other, not to mention the ensemble. Plus, Arsenal is incredible ingrained into the community; Stroman describes Arsenal football as the lingua franca of Highbury. The night I was there, there was an abundance of white and red scarves (the Arsenal colours, for anyone who may be among the less well versed when it comes to football) and plenty of knowing chuckles at the general history of the football club explored throughout the show. Nick Hornby, who wrote the original Fever Pitch, is regarded as a local hero. Coming at it from a complete lack of knowledge, I didn’t get every detail but it was a fun show nonetheless.
Fever Pitch the Opera is an absolute must-see if you’re an Arsenal fan, have any sort of connection to them as a football club, or simply live in or around Highbury. It’s not a show to take too seriously or to have the highest expectations of in terms of professional training, but it is full of energy and thoroughly enjoyable.
Fever Pitch the Opera played at the Highbury Opera Theatre until September 24 2017.
Photo: Claudia Marinaro