Offside: the shocking moment female footballers were banned for 50 years

Originally written for the Guardian.

In 1921, the Football Association ruled the sport “quite unsuitable for females and … not to be encouraged”. For the next 50 years, women were banned from playing on FA pitches. A new theatre show, Offside, brings this hidden history to light. “So many people were unaware that there had been a ban,” says the show’s co-writer Sabrina Mahfouz, “even people who are playing football now”.

The play emerged from Caroline Bryant’s passion and frustration. A lifelong football fan, she was never able to play for a team when she was growing up. Decades later, as artistic director of the company Futures Theatre, which is committed to promoting equality for women, it seemed to her an injustice that was ripe for dramatisation. “Football is so much a part of British and world culture,” says Bryant. “Why are women excluded from it?”

Poet Hollie McNish, who wrote the play with Mahfouz, describes the women’s game as an “amazing little microcosm of the history of women’s rights”. Over the years, it’s been caught up with the fight for equality in a variety of areas. The rational dress movement of the late 19th century was partly driven by women fighting to wear clothes that were suitable for playing sport, while women’s football in Scotland was closely linked to the campaign for female suffrage. These were the stories that Mahfouz and McNish sought out.

Based on current and historical research, the show intertwines three narratives: one contemporary, two historical. In the present, fictional characters Mickey and Keeley are pursuing their dream of playing for England. Spurring them on from the history books are Carrie Boustead, a black female footballer who was playing in the 1880s and 90s, and the National Football Museum hall of fame star Lily Parr.

As Mahfouz explains, Boustead and Parr’s stories “act as heroic, retrospective examples that the two contemporary football players use to motivate themselves”. These interwoven stories are performed by a cast of three against the backdrop of a handmade patchwork that includes various nods to the game’s history, from suffragette protest banners to more recent feminist iconography.

The little-known story of Boustead, who played as a goalkeeper, counters what Mahfouz calls the “whitewashing” of British history. Parr, meanwhile, was a winger for Dick, Kerr Ladies, the team that on Boxing Day 1920 drew a crowd of 53,000 to Goodison Park. Dick, Kerr Ladies and other teams of female factory workers had steadily gained popularity during and after the first world war, but in 1921 the FA banned the women’s game from its grounds, citing medical concerns over its effects on women’s health. The ban crippled the burgeoning sport, forcing Parr and her peers to play on village greens.

The ban persisted until 1971, two years after the formation of the Women’s Football Association, when the FA bowed to pressure from Uefa to once again allow women to play on its grounds. Today, 46 years on from the lifting of the ban, the women’s game is stronger than ever, but the gap between women’s and men’s football remains.

“There was just such palpable frustration,” says Mahfouz, reflecting on her conversations with players. Leanne Cowan, Millwall Lionesses defender and one of the women interviewed for Offside, tells me that she works three or four jobs alongside training and matches in order to do what she loves. Such a situation is not uncommon for female footballers, while their male counterparts earn often astronomical sums.

“It was astounding, really, that this love of this game could keep them going,” says Mahfouz. McNish, despite being a football lover, was amazed that female players of the past loved the sport so much that they fought “for the right to kick a ball”.

Bryant believes that “we are at the cusp of changing all this now”. A key turning point was the 2014 match against Germany at Wembley, which attracted 55,000 spectators. Meanwhile, more clubs are paying their female players on a full-time basis and attitudes are beginning to change. As Cowan says: “The game is getting bigger every year.”

“I think it’s important to recognise that things have been created this way and it’s not just how it is,” says Mahfouz. Bryant, too, insists that it’s vital to remind people of the setbacks that female footballers have faced. “When people say the game’s not as fast or as entertaining as the men’s game, I want them to know that for 50 years women weren’t allowed to play.”

The hope is that Offside will shift attitudes. “I want the audience to be a bit pissed off at the way female sportspeople are still portrayed,” says McNish. For Bryant, the ultimate aim is to reach the point where the men’s and women’s games are on a level in people’s minds. “The greatest thing for me will be when they interview a manager at the end of the game, it’s a woman, and no one says anything about it – it’s just normal.”

Photo: Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images.

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Funny Girl, Palace Theatre Manchester

Originally written for the Guardian.

That’s where I live, on stage,” says Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice. In this knowingly theatrical revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, it’s easy to believe her. Michael Pavelka’s set frames the Broadway star inside an ever-present, tilted proscenium arch – the wonky mirror image of the one at the Palace theatre. The suggestion is that she’s surrounded by audiences on both sides, forever the performer.

Back in the role of Fanny for the first leg of a UK tour, after a celebrated West End run interrupted by absences due to stress and exhaustion, Smith is showbusiness incarnate. In her hands, the lively Brooklyn joker is an intricate tangle of competing emotions, all covered up with a big, bright, Broadway smile. One moment, she’s pulling an impressively elastic series of funny faces. The next, she’s singing a feeling-drenched rendition of People, tears cascading down her cheeks.

For rising vaudeville star Fanny, comedy is a mask and entertaining the audience is a way to deny personal pain. Even with tears in her eyes, Smith is ready with a grin and a wink for the stalls, pointedly making a performance out of Fanny’s real life. Whether stinging from rejection or overwhelmed by lust, this leading lady always has an aside for the punters.

Overcoming the towering memory of Barbra Streisand in the central role is no mean feat. Smith, though, proves herself more than capable of matching Streisand’s physical comedy and belting vocals, without it ever feeling as though she’s attempting to replicate her famous predecessor. The songs, in particular, Smith makes entirely her own, rippling Styne’s well-known melodies with raw emotion. Don’t Rain on My Parade is more grit than brass; People aches with quiet longing; Who Are You Now? is peppered with painful sighs. In spite of all her passionate feeling, though, this ambitious star-in-waiting has a spine of pure steel. No one would dare to rain on her parade.

Chris Peluso is less convincing as Nick Arnstein, the object of Fanny’s endearingly dorky, weak-at-the-knees adoration. The fact that her star eclipses his is central to the story of their rocky relationship, but Peluso lacks the necessary charisma to persuade us that Fanny would ever swoon quite so helplessly in his arms. It doesn’t help that his pathetic wail that Fanny is “choking” him with her talent and wealth has aged badly. As a result, his side of the story feels lacklustre in comparison with Fanny’s determined rise to fame. But then again, this musical was always about its heroine.

The staging has the same delicious silliness as Fanny’s Ziegfeld Follies acts, with members of the ensemble regularly pirouetting in from the wings carrying bits of scenery. Director Michael Mayer’s production, like its heroine, never takes itself too seriously. Likewise, Lynne Page’s choreography tickles more than it dazzles, the exaggerated leaps and twirls gleefully embracing the humour of the show.

Ultimately, though, this is all just dressing for the title role in a bio-musical that puts Brice’s talents centre stage. Taking on this part, Smith convincingly stakes her own claim to Fanny’s driving desire: to be, as her first big number declares, “the greatest star”. The action and peripheral characters might sometimes fail to compel, but Smith is never less than astonishing.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Anti-pantos: the plays getting to the grim reality of Christmas

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Christmas is ripe for disappointment,” acknowledges writer and performer Jonny Donahoe with a chuckle. “And yet we’re so excited about it.” Donahoe’s new play, 30 Christmases, celebrates both the joy and letdown of the festive period, from family traditions to family arguments. It’s one of a number of shows bucking the pantomime trend this year and offering a more ambivalent take on the holiday.

Playwright Matthew Bulgo acknowledges that Christmas Day is “a real crucible”. As such, it’s a gift for a dramatist. Bulgo’s play Last Christmas, about a man who returns home to confront his demons, wasn’t originally set at this time of year, but “the tinsel and the baubles and the pudding just snuck in somewhere along the way”. For Bulgo, Christmas was “the perfect context to address those issues of family, friendship and home because it seems like the time when you almost can’t avoid them”. Donahoe makes a similar point, observing that “Christmas is something that punctuates everyone’s year, whether they like it or not”.

Both Donahoe and Bulgo are exploring how the past erupts into the present at this time of year. In Donahoe’s show, he and comedian Rachel Parris play siblings telling the story of the Christmases – both happy and sad – that they’ve shared. Bulgo’s protagonist, Tom, is travelling back to see his family in Swansea for the first time since his father died. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Tom is “absolutely riddled with flaws” and is “tied up in knots about regrets from the past”.

At the National Theatre in London, another kind of family drama is at the heart of Love, the new show from writer and director Alexander Zeldin. The play follows three families who have been placed in temporary accommodation, exposing a side to Christmas that is rarely made visible. Zeldin was inspired to make the show after a friend at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter sent him their annual report on families spending Christmas in B&Bs. “For me, the starting point is never a political idea,” Zeldin says. “It’s always a human moment or encounter.” Reading Shelter’s report, he was struck by the voices of “women with young children speaking very simply about what it’s like to live in terrible conditions in a tiny room, with all the kids piled up together and strangers around them”.

While researching the play, Zeldin stayed in hostels himself and met many families in temporary accommodation. This year Shelter estimates that more than 120,000 British children will be homeless at Christmas. This is something that Donahoe has been thinking about. 30 Christmases has been made in partnership with the Old Fire Station in Oxford, which doubles up as a Crisis centre for homeless people. “It’s the perfect place to put on a show about Christmas,” he says, “because we don’t exactly have a perfect society.” He recalls meeting the head of the biggest homeless shelter in Oxford during the making of the show. “She said, ‘We get lots of people trying to volunteer for Christmas Day and we don’t need that, we need things all year round.’ So I wanted to address that as well, and look at the way we think about what Christmas is and what it represents to us.”

The question of what Christmas means is there in all three shows. Zeldin is interested in Christmas “as a metaphor of someone sacrificing themselves for something broader, or of hope being invested in a child”. He also suggests that, as a time of year when people come together, Christmas “provides good conditions” for theatre that aims to create a collective experience among strangers.

These three plays might eschew the glitter and glee of pantomime, but they are nonetheless optimistic. Donahoe stresses that 30 Christmases is “incredibly upbeat”. Throughout the show, which features festive songs from Donahoe’s band Jonny and the Baptists, he and Parris come up with new Christmas games, foods and drinks, inventing their own traditions. “It’s about two people trying to discover new rituals,” he explains. “Having gone through a Christmas trauma, they decide to make it their own thing.”

Bulgo says that audiences for Last Christmas (which has had several outings since its premiere at the Sherman Cymru, Cardiff in December 2012) describe it as “the kind of show that makes you want to leave the theatre and call your loved ones and tell them how much you love them”. Zeldin, meanwhile, wants to show “the strength that comes from parental love and the love people have for each other inside the family”.

More than anything, the shows challenge the image of Christmas perfection. Christmas comes in many guises, but perhaps that’s no bad thing. “It’s usually a day marked with over- and under-cooked food and too much alcohol and shouting across the table, but also there’s something incredibly joyful about that,” Donahoe insists. “Those rituals are just as important as mistletoe and ringing bells and singing carols.”

Phoebe Eclair-Powell

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell grimaces as she remembers performing at the Edinburgh fringe in her teens: “We were those really horrific kids on the Royal Mile who sing songs and wear costumes and do jazz hands and aggressively flyer you.” Next month, however, she’ll be back at the festival with two new plays, after a third one has run at London’s Soho theatre. “Three shows in two months is really, really stupid,” she admits with a broad, if nervous, smile. “I’d quite like to sleep for all of September.”

The London production is Fury, her updated take on Medea, while her Edinburgh premieres are Torch, about womanhood, and Epic Love and Pop Songs, about teenage friendship. The Edinburgh fringe is familiar territory for her. From a young age, she accompanied her mother, the comedian Jenny Eclair, to the festival. Her mum became the first solo female comedian to win the fringe’s Perrier comedy award in 1995. Eclair-Powell’s own attempts as a performer were short-lived (“I go bright red talking in front of people on stage”) and, after doing an English degree at Oxford University, she joined the young writers’ group at the Royal Court. When she found a job in the building (first in marketing, then as artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s personal assistant), “everything magically fell into place”. She describes her time at the Court as “the best education I could have had”.

While she never wanted to be a comedian – “Jesus Christ, no,” she says with good-humoured vehemence – her mother’s outspoken standup acts were a big influence. “She’s bloody amazing,” she says, adding that she is still the person whose feedback she trusts the most. Watching her mum perform comedy when she was a child helped Eclair-Powell to realise that “there’s a world where adults also play and don’t have to grow up”. She believes comedy is a “really good way of getting across a message” and describes Epic Love and Pop Songs as a “really playful” show that takes audiences into the world of teenagers Doll and Ted. It’s about “your best friend, lying and winery” (white wine and Red Bull, apparently).

Even in Fury, an otherwise dark and angry piece, she balances the rage with humour. “I hope there are still a few laughs in there,” she says, “because I don’t think I can write anything without putting a joke in.” The play is about a single mother, exploring how “that phrase itself conjures up so many images and has become such a stereotype”. While writing Fury, which won the 2015 Soho young writers’ award, she found herself considering how mothers are still “pressurised and judged in a way that fathers aren’t”.

Gender-related expectations are a recurring theme in her work. Her debut, Wink, staged at Theatre503 in London last year, explored the pressures of modern masculinity. Torch, a collaboration with theatre company Flipping the Bird, asks what it means to be a woman today. It was born from an earlier piece which used anonymous surveys to explore people’s attitudes to sex. “We decided we wanted to repeat that model and do it about the experience of identifying as a woman, which was much harder, bigger, more complex,” Eclair-Powell explains. The result is a collage of a show that lies somewhere between play and gig, weaving in performances of songs by, among others, Patti Smith and Miley Cyrus.

Torch’s frontwoman is Jess Mabel Jones, best known to theatre audiences as Tourette’s hero Jess Thom’s sidekick in Backstage in Biscuit Land. Eclair-Powell explains that Jones’s personality has had a real impact on the piece. “She has so much of her own stamp on this show. I’ve had to really wrangle with the script to make that part of it.” She also found herself wrangling with the survey responses. “Unlike the sex questionnaires, which came back as largely positive and funny and embarrassing and gross, these ones came back as being insecure, nervous, anxious, negative, upset,” she says. The play is incorporating these feelings, though Eclair-Powell is adamant that it should ultimately be a “celebration of womanhood”.

Writing Torch has forced Eclair-Powell to confront her own views. “I thought I was a really on-it feminist. I’d grown up as a feminist from a very young age – and I feel like I’m losing a grip of what that means and I’m losing a grip of my own politics.” Acknowledging that it’s impossible to represent all women or speak for the entire feminist movement, she has made Torch “incredibly personal – and that does feel quite exposing”. She continues: “We all build a self that we show to the world and conceal the parts of ourselves that we would rather remain secret.” Torch, half performance and half confessional, “lives in the gap between the two”.

Photo: Sarah Lee.

Men & Girls Dance

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Fevered Sleep’s latest project, Men & Girls Dance, is exactly what its title suggests: adult male performers dancing with young girls. That relationship, though, has been tainted in recent years. Put the words “men” and “girls” in the same sentence and it’s likely to call to mind suspicions of abuse. This is what Fevered Sleep is hoping to challenge.

Men & Girls Dance brings together male professional dancers and girls who dance for fun, recruited through a local call out. The initial impetus was purely aesthetic: artistic director Sam Butler had been to her daughter’s end-of-term ballet show the day before auditioning male dancers for another project and found herself struck by the difference between the two types of performer. “I thought it would be really interesting to make a piece with male contemporary dancers, because they’re big and strong and agile and tall and muscular, and put them next to little girls in pink,” she says.

But during research and development, the company met resistance. “Some of the reactions were quite shocking,” Butler remembers. Questions and concerns (“What does it mean?”, “We don’t like that, it sounds a bit creepy”) were repeatedly raised. “The politics of it became the thing that people had the reaction to, not the aesthetics,” says David Harradine, the company’s other artistic director. So Fevered Sleep set out to tackle those reactions.

The company began with the two groups of dancers and a series of questions: “Is this possible? And is it beautiful? Does it move us?” The answer was, in Butler’s view, “yes, absolutely”. A lot of that is simply to do with the contrast between the two body types. “Incredible things happen when you are choreographing men who are six foot five and girls who are four foot six,” says Harradine. “In terms of the movement potential, it’s really exciting.”

Gaining the trust of parents in each area they visit is crucial to the process and the company has occasionally encountered reluctance. Butler tells me, though, that the outcome of the workshops has dispelled any fears. “The people who have then gone on to see the showings have had their minds changed,” she says. “Everybody has said it is really joyous to be there and witness it.”

Fevered Sleep is known for its work with video installations and digital art, but in Men & Girls Dance everything is stripped back to just the performers – and newspaper. Whether wrapped around the performers or lobbed across the stage, newspaper pages are a constant visual reminder of the relationships between men and girls that we are used to seeing in the media. “It says so much,” says Butler, “we don’t need to say anything else.”

The performance itself, though, is worlds away from the headlines those newspapers invoke. As in many of Fevered Sleep’s shows, play is integral and the spirit is joyful; while two-thirds of the piece is choreographed in advance, the final third is improvised. “A lot of that improvised material is just about the performers being in a space with the audience, looking at each other and being present to each other,” says Harradine. What emerges is a playful and tender celebration of the relationships on stage. And alongside the performances, creating space for conversations is a huge part of the project – there’s an accompanying publication, and discussions before, during and after each residency.

While the title may bring to mind recent headlines, Harradine stresses that the company is not interested in courting controversy to sell tickets. “We’re trying to provoke people to question what society seems to tell us about this relationship. It is provocative and it is political, but there’s nothing controversial about it.”

This year’s residencies mark the culmination of almost three years of development and exploration, but they are not the end of the project. Butler hopes that Men & Girls Dance will travel to festivals or generate pop-up events in the street, leaving “little traces of it here and there so it doesn’t disappear”. They will keep it going, she insists, until it’s no longer needed. “My hope is that at some point we’ll be able to stop doing this piece.”

Photo: Karen Robinson.