By Far The Greatest Team

17 September
Lowry

A Scouser walks into a theatre in Manchester and is about to watch a production highlighting the love for the city’s football clubs (no, it’s not a joke). Written about Manchester football, by Manchester football club supporters and staged in a Manchester theatre, By Far The Greatest Team ingeniously explores our relationships with our clubs and what it means to be a fan.

Told in a game of two halves, the production presents four short plays lasting 90 minutes in total and performed in the round, just like match day. To keep everything even-steven, two plays are written by City supporters and the other two by United fans. The atmosphere is electric. Walking into the ‘stadium’, some audience members are showing their colours and it’s not long before you can hazard a guess on their hues. Passions are running high as I take my seat and don’t dare utter a word, worried whether a Scouser could enjoy this Manchester Derby.

The evening kicks off with Ian Kershaw’s We’re Not Really Here, a powerful exploration of football’s dark side. Sam parades on the stage, wielding a cricket bat and swilling his pint. Full of angst, he’s ready and willing to unleash the wrath of Manchester City onto the soldiers of United. His support is based on threats, singing disparaging songs about the Munich air disaster and tearing out his own eye, until he meets Helen, an old school City supporter who teaches him what it truly means to be a fan. “Nothing else matters,” she tells him, except love of the game. The hate and the pain can’t be the things that are filtered down through the generations, and she takes his remaining eye. An eye for an eye leaves the world blind.

Stretford End is a lighter piece, written by Lindsay Williams, about how football can bring people together and pull them apart. The setting is Manchester United versus Swansea, which is Sir Alex Ferguson’s last home game as manager. Dunc and Robbie are season ticket holders and they reminisce about their favourite moments of the Ferguson era. One, of course, is “beating the Scousers”, which is mentioned several times (and the guy next to me laughs each time). Disturbing the peace, we meet Robbie’s ex, Sal, who turns up on Robbie’s turn to have custody of the season tickets.

After collecting a fresh pint at half time, we’re back for the second half, which opens with the funniest piece of the four, The Good, The Bad and The Giggsy. Some of the comic value was lost on me due to not being as clued up on footy banter, but it was still a comedy that could be enjoyed even at beginner level. Written by Andrew Sheridan, the piece again explores how football can formulate our relationships, and ways to find common ground with each other.

The final piece really resonated with me and was one to remind us that football runs deeper than a group of blokes running around for 90 minutes. It’s Only Football follows Abi as she tries to rekindle a relationship with her dad, Gary. Abi does her homework and tries her best to look and sound the part, which comes off unconvincingly. But soon she is in the thick of it and desperate for City to win, because “it would just be too sad if they don’t”.

Kate Morris

The Crucible

4 October
Royal Exchange Theatre

Based on the real life identification and persecution of the Salem ‘witches’, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set in the puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The powerful opening scenes set the story of dark moments in the history of the town. We observe Reverend Samuel Parris (Stephen Kennedy) screaming in horror, fearing his daughter has been stricken ill from witchcraft.

Without delay, nosy neighbours arrive under the guise of well-wishing. Yet there are darker forces at play, as envy, frustration and malice become evident in the exchanges between the reverend and his parishioners. The reverend already feels threatened in his status and position and desperately wants to believe his confident and charming niece, Abigail (Rachel Redford), as she attempts to reassure him that the girls were simply dancing in the woods.

As the play progresses, we come to know Abigail’s manipulative malice, as she vengefully settles scores. Redford successfully portrays the character of Abigail, who is at times powerful and provocative and leads the other girls astray. But the star of the show is Jonjo O’Neill, who plays the ‘very human’ protagonist, John Proctor.

Hysteria and paranoia amongst the Salem locals start to spiral out of control, Reverend Parris is unable to contain the chaos and neighbours no longer trust each other. Rebecca Nurse (Marjorie Yates) remains a calm and loving presence amongst the bitterness that is consuming Salem, but is among the first to be accused of witchcraft and is arrested.

Miller’s script portrays how speedily and terrifyingly events can amplify beyond superstition to tragic consequences. The actors’ costumes are contemporary, as we imagine this production to be set now in America’s Bible Belt, where women still dress soberly and austerely. It acts as a modern link to remind us that this scapegoating scenario is still very possible today. Indeed, the accompanying programme also picks up on a contemporary witch-hunt in Britain where Muslims are demonised, disciplined and interrogated for being ‘un-British’.

The Crucible is a personal play reflecting Miller’s conviction of contempt of Congress for refusing to name other Communists, just as the Salem townsfolk are pressurised to name ‘witches’. The play was deemed radical in its time and Miller was refused a passport after the stage production. He experienced firsthand the persecution of those deemed ‘un-American’ for refusing to be a ‘good American citizen’.

The Royal Exchange production manages to deliver a relevant focus on the dark themes and powerful universal messages through the superb acting of O’Neill, Kennedy and Redford. Critics rightly argue that The Crucible is not solely about the Salem witch-hunts, or about McCarthyism, but it is a universal and timeless play.

Sadia Habib

The Crucible continues until 24 October.