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Review: Red Pitch (@SohoPlace)

Review by Harry Bower


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


 

Tales of young people growing up in estates around the country desperate to make it as a footballer are now ten a penny. From Cornwall to Strathclyde teenagers wake up early to practice their skills, head to the local pitch to play a game against their rivals, before dashing home to watch the millionaire pro’s do it on TV. To become a millionaire pro is the ambition of literally hundreds of thousands of kids around the country. And yet despite those tales being so common, no piece of theatre has so accurately depicted the experiences of such kids living in a rapidly changing South London estate as Red Pitch. Having received a promotion to the next league, the play transfers from the Bush Theatre to London’s newest west end venue, @SohoPlace. But is this a victory parade, lifting the trophy up high for all to admire? Or does the transfer result in a score draw?

 

Fortunately, there’s no need for extra time or penalties to find out; the Red Pitch transfer is a huge success. In our original review of the Bush production, our reviewer Sam said that “all elements of [the] production are working in perfect harmony with one another”, and that is absolutely still true. Staging, a railing-enclosed concrete football pitch, sits stadium-like in the round, lit beautifully - and the piece is artfully directed to ensure that, just like in a football game, every seat gets a clear view of the action. If you’ve not yet been to @Sohoplace, there really is no bad seat in the house, and the seating layout allows for some inventive use of space. Pre-show this is manifested by allowing young members of the audience to get up onto the pitch and kick a ball around with the cast. It immediately thrusts you into the world of urban football, each baller trying to outdo the other with tricks and flicks.



Red Pitch is a story of three black teenage boys growing up in Southwark, and their banterous adolescent friendship straining as they grow up and begin to go separate ways. Together they are psychologically battling with a stark and unfair backdrop of gentrification, which is driving a wedge between their community and their home. Using football as a synonym for change is clever; each boy is trying desperately to be signed by a professional club, to escape their class and become a rich, famous footballer. At sixteen they are too naïve to realise their modern ambition runs in parallel to what’s happening in their community. As each Morley’s Chicken Shop is replaced with a coffee shop, the sounds of construction work ring louder in the ears of the audience. A constant soundscape of crowds, drills, cranes, reversing delivery trucks and pulsating music drives the atmosphere which builds as the teenagers jostle for position.

 

Though it could be perhaps ten minute shorter with no consequence, the writing throughout is slick and realistic. Close your eyes and you could really be listening to the Snapchat generation throwing insults and winding each other up on any playground in any city in the UK. Dialogue is laced with a brutal quick wit which produces lots of laugh out loud moments but thankfully that humour is more than skin deep. The laughs are earned by the deeply held relationships which have been written sensitively. There is hidden or double meaning in most scenes and some  heart-wrenching moments which produced audible ‘aww’s around the auditorium. At the beginning of a football match, there is a collective pause for breath in the crowd before kick-off, before the roar goes up and the atmosphere really gets going. That silence is replicated with plenty of pauses in the dialogue in which moments are given their time to ruminate. It’s notable that some of the best and most impactful moments come with no dialogue at all.



The three performers move as one at times, their bodies participating in the ritualistic ball game, dreaming of their future success. Kedar Williams-Stirling (Bilal), Emeka Sesay (Joey) and Francis Lovehall (Omz) each reprise their roles and are equally brilliant. In returning from prior runs they each bring a sense of inherent character development and a richness of relationship to the piece which is rare to see. Each seems to know the others in a way which seems implausible from rehearsals alone, responding to each glance, each movement, each kick of the ball intuitively.

 

Speaking of a football; it’s quite the feat for a game which relies so heavily on skill to be represented in a way which isn’t cringy or oversimplified. Instead, each performer is actually able to dribble with and perform tricks with a football. It might seem an easy thing and I’m sure many reviews will brush over it – but as someone who played football as a kid and was heartbroken when his friends decided he wasn’t good enough to play anywhere except in goal – I found it really impressive watching the cast kick the ball around while remaining on-script and delivering on their wider narrative responsibilities.



That Red Pitch is told through the lens of friendship and humanity is one of its biggest strengths. That it is a story from a creatively underrepresented community, now told on the West End, makes it hugely significant. It’s funny, charming, and flies in the face of football stereotype, and therefore should appeal to even the most anti-football audiences. Its story however is sadly all too familiar; a story of kids growing up in communities they’ll soon be priced out of. We may look back on Red Pitch as a sort of time capsule – what used to be in South London. Before all the coffee shops and posh bakeries took over.

 

Red Pitch plays at @SohoPlace until 04 May. For more information visit: https://sohoplace.org/shows/red-pitch

 

Photos by Helen Murray

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