The Old Red Lion’s black box space has been transported to an uncertain and confining 1984 Leeds pub. I feel claustrophobic as the tiny space is made tinier by oppressive walls of corrugated iron and out of the corner of my right eye I am being stared out by Margaret Thatcher’s face plastered onto a dartboard. It’s completely sold out – I’d go as far as to say over-capacity – we’re almost like crammed in football supporters barged into and brimming out of the stands. I’ve been to the Old Red Lion a fair bit and I’m used to putting my feet up because I’m roughly 20% of the audience. I’ve not seen it anywhere near that full since The Play That Goes Wrong smashed it out of the ballpark there in 2012. Call me a rocket scientist but it seems that the new(ish) artistic director Stewart Pringle is well and truly nailing it.
Marching On Together is about football hooliganism. I know very little about either football or hooliganism, but something about the ominously suffocating set suggested that it wasn’t going to be all camaraderie and victory pints. Sure enough, in a pretty slow start we were introduced to recently released ex-con Macca (Adam Patrick Boakes), once the leader of the notorious Leeds hooligan gang The Service Crew that landed him into prison for an act of violence. He has come out to find his world a different place, his crew disbanded, the mentality of its members softened into submission in favour of wives, kids and jobs. His own missus is ardently refusing to greet his return with open arms or let him see his son. He is torn between his desire to change for his family and his ceaseless loyalty to ‘the badge’ (Leeds United) and with it all he knew and was successful at.
Adam Hughes’s writing is gritty, real and darkly enticing. In Macca he has created a character that represents the plight of the working classes during the 1980s: the sense of misplaced displacement, unemployment and an angry desire to be given the chance to belong. Macca’s desperation to get back to the normality of his life is futile because that life doesn’t exist anymore, apart from his ability to fight for his club. Similarly as the miners’ strike ferociously goes on they are faced with the inevitable knowledge that normality is unlike to return.
Boakes’s characterisation of Macca is unsettlingly angry. He never seems to blink as he balances on the edge of a violent attack constantly. I don’t think that the character is redeeming enough, that he is shown to value his family high enough to properly cement some empathy. Macca has been replaced by a new leader of a younger gang, Nathan (Alex Southern). Nathan is painfully arrogant and squirmingly slimey, making me feel uncomfortable for every second of his presence. The source of empathy comes from Macca’s long suffering girlfriend, played by Donna Preston, and his newfound protégée Tommy (Joshua Garwood) whose innocence and naive loyalty left me completely relieved to see that he had managed to come out of the action unscathed at the curtain call.
Marching On Together is full of detail contributing to the oppressive atmosphere of that generation. The scene changes were the most alerting and scary, filled with the banging of iron and harrowingly aggressive football chants. I wanted to see more softness from Macca, that side of him only becomes apparent at the bitter end by which point I’d all but given up on his chance of repentance.
Marching On Together played at Old Red Lion Theatre and is now embarking on a West Yorkshire tour. For more information and tickets, see Adam Hughes’s website.