Review by Sam Waite
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Aged around 8 or 9, I found myself appalled to see that the goalposts on our local recreational ground (“park” would be a strong word, especially in the early aughts) had been removed by the council. Incensed, and probably inspired by something being taught to us at school, I dictated a letter to said council as my dad diligently kept up on a typewriter. Does this story of the long-ago year 2000 (and the typewriter) age me horribly? Perhaps. Was this a severe overreaction to what turned out to be a routine cleaning of equipment? Of course. Did I even like football? No, not at all – but it was something that brought the local kids together, and that bond had been threatened.
In Tyrell Williams’ debut, Red Pitch, the characters do have a deep love for the game, and face more serious threats to their community, and their connections. Returning to the Bush Theatre with its original trio of stars, Red Pitch takes place entirely on the boys’ titular stomping grounds, with Omz, Joey and Bilal’s training, team trials, and teenage debauchery, all being related through their aftermaths rather than the events themselves. These three 16-year-olds – lifelong friends and teammates – move ever closer to trials to join the Queens Park Rangers club, all while their once-thriving neighbourhood is “renewed” around them.
Returning actors Kedar Williams-Stirling (of Netflix’s Sex Education), Francis Lovehall and Emeka Sesay, carry their roles with such a nuanced, richly realised chemistry that to imply a standout among them would be a disservice to both his co-stars and the production itself. Perhaps unsurprising given Williams-Stirling’s Netflix gig, the three are entirely believable as teenagers, throwing their quick-fire (but not always quick-witted) banter back and forth and becoming hysterically gleeful at the slightest hint of female attention – Omz told a girl he liked her shoes, and she said, “Thanks,” he tells the boys as they squeal in delight.
The dialogue and underlying menace of gentrification demonstrate a real strength and maturity in Tyrell Williams’ writing. As petulant, needless arguments break out more and more between the boys, their “ends” become less and less the place they grew up and came together – the script has the boys double-tap the bars of the exit, a ritual that develops further poignance as the story develops. A pet peeve of mine is avoided with the dialogue itself, with no overtly “theatrical” statements or exposition for exposition’s sake. Conversations serve a purpose, whether to move the plot or shift the emotional balance, and every word out of these boys’ mouths sounds like the words of a real London-raised teenager.
Funny as they all are when the tone is light and the affectionate insults are flying left and right, each of the actors is equally adept at bringing to life the anguish of changing friendships, the deep-rooted pain of leaving what is familiar, and the ugliness that can result from resentment. Director Daniel Bailey, also returning from last year’s debut run, is at his best when all three characters are on stage together. He is more than capable at blocking and keeping a strong equilibrium with only one or two actors, but where the entire trio share the stage the energy is palpable and the tonal shifts within conversations particularly sharp and perfectly moulded.
The production soars before the show even begins, with Amelia Jane Hankin’s triumphant set design – at the forefront of the stage a metal fence separates the front row from the action, while a brick wall upstage frames re-created football stands, adding an extra layer of immersion to the in-the-round set-up. Likewise, her costume design helps to immerse us in the worlds and lives of these characters, with subtle differences in brands and styles giving hints to the backstories we will be drip-fed over the 90-minute performance. Ali Hunter’s lighting helps to bring us into fantasies of glory, with camera flashes and dramatic, atmospheric framing of the actors and their imagined victories. Working in tandem, and often creating a strong counterpoint, Khalil Madovi utilises sound to represent the increasing gentrification of the area – construction sounds, and protest chants are a near-constant, but become impossible to ignore as their volume rises to match their presence in the boys’ lives.
A dynamic, thrilling physicality is present in the work, particularly in later scenes. Thanks to Aaron Samuel, brought in to consult on the football aspect of the piece, movements are accurate to real players and the characters are believable as long-time teammates. Dickson Mbi and Deirdre O’Halloran, as movement and fight directions respectively, tear into dialogue-light moments to bring this physical component to the forefront, Without giving away the cause or those involved, a brutal, hard-to-watch fight scene is expertly crafted by O’Halloran, and incited gasps not just of shock from the audience, but of genuine concern with the violence being so entirely realistic and those fateful moments where the actors avoid genuine contact so hard to catch.
Each component of this show demonstrates the excellence achieved when members of a community are allowed to tell their own stories, and when all elements of a production are working in perfect harmony with one another. If you’re football crazy, you’ll get more out of the references and the jargon thrown around, but if you’re a human being, this story will still resonate deeply. Three immaculate performances lie at the centre of Red Pitch, but no other factor is lost in watching these young men work – everything is too well-done, too finely-crafted, for me to believe anyone could overlook anyone’s work here. A film version of Red Pitch is in its development stages, and while it’s hard to see how that adaptation could rival its source, it’s easy to see why a studio would want to bring this work of art to the widest audience possible.
Red Pitch plays at the Bush Theatre until September 30th
For tickets and information visit https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/red-pitch-2023/
Photos by Craig Fuller