|Photo: Mike Smith|
A couple of years ago, in happier days for stage and theatre before Covid-19 struck and the world was plunged into dark times, there was an excellent stage production - A War of Two Halves - staged at Tynecastle Park, the home of Edinburgh’s oldest and biggest football club Heart of Midlothian.
With lockdown restrictions eased somewhat – for now – the team behind that excellent production is back with another breath-taking piece of theatre. And again, the setting is Tynecastle Park.
With a highly talented nine-strong ensemble, Sweet F.A. written by Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow, and produced by Bruce Strachan is, like A War of Two Halves, set during the First World War and tells the story of football players whose lives are deeply affected by the events in the battlefield. This time, however, the story is of a group of women factory workers at the North British Rubber Company in Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge whose passion for football is almost as strong as their love for their men in the fields of France. The women are involved in the production of wellington boots for their loved ones fighting for their King and country.
Their story of everyday struggle alleviated by their love of football and determination to form a football club at a time when women’s football was most definitely frowned upon by the football authorities is an extremely powerful one.
As you might expect it’s an all-female cast with some stunning individual performances. From the opening scene when Daisy and Alice meet each other for the first time in the Diggers pub – and there’s a nice wee reference for those not familiar with Gorgie’s watering holes as to why the Athletic Arms is called the Diggers – to a highly-charged ending when the football suits in Glasgow finally get their way, Sweet F.A. transports you back to a different era when equality was just a word in the dictionary and women’s rights were restricted to a life looking after their menfolk, raising children and spending most of their time in the family home.
It is a tragic tale in more ways in one. Most of the factory girls are affected by personal loss in the war but this heart-tugging story of courage is also one of forbidden love. Amidst the emotionally charged scenes, however, there is biting humour and numerous digs at the football authorities in Scotland, including today’s men in suits. It says much for the brilliant writing and production of the show that they can reference into a scene from more than a century ago last season’s controversial SPFL vote which demoted Hearts from the top flight thanks to a missing vote from Dundee F.C.
The action is impressive, too, particularly when the girls play their Edinburgh arch-rivals from Ramage & Ferguson shipbuilders – who, of course, hail from Leith. The women’s teams equivalent of Hearts-Hibs games. The players describe the action in fine detail culminating with a pause for great effect before wildly celebrating a ‘goal’.
The hugely impressive cast successfully convey the story of how popular women’s football was during the First World War. And your admiration for their achievements is accompanied with deep sympathy for the huge emotional turmoil most of them go through. For Daisy and Alice this emotional turmoil has added piquancy.
It’s remarkable to think the ban on women’s football that followed in the early 1920s lasted nearly 50 years – in fact it was longer in Scotland as the narrator explains with understandable bitterness. The frequent digs at Scotland’s football authorities throughout the show went down well with audience, not all of whom were of the maroon persuasion.
Even if you’re not into football you will be inspired by this brilliant production. I didn’t want it to end and there must have been something in my eye towards the end of the performance – honestly!
A five-star review for a five-star performance!
Sweet F.A. is on until Monday 30th August 2021. Tickets here.