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Review: Why I Stuck a Flare Up My Arse for England (Southwark Playhouse)

Review by Harry Bower


⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


11 July 2021. England vs Italy. The Euro 2020 Final, being played a year late due to the pandemic; it is a date with destiny etched in the memory of every English football fan in the country. Chaos that accompanied the fixture and embarrassed the country is synonymous with that game. Crowds storming Wembley, police and stewards assaulted and, curiously, a photograph of a bloke sticking a flare up his bum in Leicester Square, fuelled by pints of cider and lines of cocaine. If this is news to anyone; Google it – it’s all true. It’s a dramatic backdrop for a piece of theatre. Writer and actor Alex Hill has connected the thematic dots between performance and football, and the result is spectacularly entertaining.

 

The piece is just an hour long, perfectly paced. Its plot, a walkthrough of the fictionalised bum flare man’s life and connection with football, is book ended with replays of that immortalised moment. For those sixty minutes Hill is a bundle of energy which perfectly recreates the sense of frenzy, excitement, and anticipation which gripped the nation in the lead up to that fateful day. Racing around the stage, directed with supreme precision by Sean Turner, Hill is impossible to take your eyes off. This might be a one-man show, but it never feels self-indulgent or boring. Every line, piece of set, lighting change, throwaway comment – it’s all deliberate, and executed in a way which builds suspense and neatly ties each significant moment in the character’s life together.



That character is Billy. He and his mate Adam are football fanatics, and best friends. Together they fall in love with the beautiful game, holding season tickets to AFC Wimbledon and, perhaps inevitably, falling in with the wrong crowd. Girls, jobs, life; it’s all just background. Football takes the main stage in their life. That is, until it doesn’t. This play might have flares and bum in its title, but it’s really a tale of the English public’s relationship with football, alcohol, violence, and tragedy. These days that aligns nicely with a focus on men’s mental health, but the themes are much deeper and more representative of an indistinguishable emotional connection this nation seems to have with the sport itself. England football games and tragedy have gone together for decades – they are embedded in the very fabric of our culture and society.

 

So cleverly is the show written that it never feels we dwell too much on the fringe stuff that doesn’t matter. As Billy is led further astray by ‘Winegum’, the local hardman and instigator of violence at games, his world becomes more fast and more furious. Masculinity, both the toxic and non-toxic kind, are rife for exploration here; and the piece deals with both in blunt fashion, unashamedly representing the homophobia and racism commonly thinly veiled as ‘banter’. As Billy starts to lose control, there’s a moment for the audience of realisation and reflection. The lengths someone will go to when encouraged by others to do something silly or gratuitous is limited only by their own self-worth. With a sprinkle of foreshadowing and some superb introspective moments, the play is captivating.



There is no doubt that Alex Hill’s performance is of a very high quality; though it feels like in the first half of the show there are some missed opportunities with comic timing. Something seems a little off-kilter, and it took me probably a third of the piece before I truly believed in Billy and his journey. Partly I was distracted by a sound design which felt exemplary in some parts, but challenging and uneven in others. Often, I felt the intention to create an atmosphere in the room distracted from the unamplified Hill’s performance which withdrew me a bit from the immersion of the story. Naturally these are small issues highlighted only by how excellent the overall production is; I have no notes about the creative use of very limited set pieces and I will reiterate here that the direction is very impressive.

 

As Hill rightly says in an interview ahead of this run, theatre and football have unique parallels. His play joins a slew of artistic representations of the dramatic love we English have for the game, including the indomitable Ted Lasso and the recent Olivier Award winning Dear England which sold out in the West End last year. Audiences will rightly love Why I Stuck A Flare Up My Arse For England. With biting social commentary and a relentlessly funny narrative, it perfectly encapsulates how intoxicating it can be to be an England football fan. For those more deeply passionate about the sport, it offers a reflective mirror to gaze into and may prove provocative. The highly emotive, gorgeous ending to the piece really is the cherry on top of the cake. If you are even remotely interested in what it might take to get a flare up your bum for England; head on down to Southwark Playhouse and find out.

 

Why I Stuck A Flare Up My Arse For England plays at Southwark Playhouse until 04 May 2024. For more information visit: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/why-i-stuck-a-flare-up-my-arse-for-england/


Photos by Rah Petherbridge

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