Friday, February 6, 2015

'Marching on Together' at the Old Red Lion, 5th February 2015

Any production that decorates the performance space with Thatcher's grinning visage on a dartboard is off to a good start in my book. Marching on Together, about Leeds United football hooligans in the mid-1980s, quickly proves to be a breath of fresh air; physically dynamic with a fierce class consciousness and a bevy of excellent performances.

Set amidst piles of trash, rusty corrugated iron, battered pub furniture and graffiti, Leeds, 1984 isn't a particularly pleasant place to be. With the Miner's Strike in full swing, the city's working class is hangs on by their fingertips, eking out a subsistence existence on whatever pennies they can scrape together. We meet Macca (Adam Patrick Boakes) our protagonist, as he's released from prison, finding a bruised, bloodied but not quite beaten Leeds.

Having spent three years inside for assault, Macca is a tightly wound ball of aggression. Prior to his incarceration he was a leading member of the 'Service Crew', a famed firm of hooligans who'd travel the length and breath of the country clashing with fans of all stripes. Now his fellow 'soldiers' have put down the knuckle dusters and bricks in favour of family life and professional responsibilities. Macca, dismayed by what he sees as a lack of commitment to 'the badge', soon falls in with the next generation - the 'Very Young Team'.

Led by the arrogant Nathan (Alex Southern), the VLT's are a new breed of intelligent, tactical and vicious hooligan. After first looking down on them as mere children, he's soon dragged back into this world of territorial, beer-fuelled beatings, addicted to the wet thunk of fist on face and thwack of bovver boots pummelled into bellies. But what happens in a man's mind when violence is his only release?

Nathan (Alex Southern) and Macca (Adam Patrick Boakes)
From minute one, with Come On Eileen blaring out over the PA, Marching on Together brims with a tense energy that's sustained the entire duration. The spartan set quickly finds a dual function as percussive instrument, set changes signified with furniture being violently bashed onto the floor, the cast furiously yelling and beating the sheet metal scenery. Sat in the front row it's pretty damn intimidating to watch, and that's even leaving aside the monument to pig-headed testosterone at the centre of it all.

If you were sat on the top deck of a bus and saw Macca looking for a seat, you'd pray he didn't pick the one next to you. Everything about him looks precision-engineered to hurt; from the polished club of his head, the quietly crazed expression to the meaty paws with which he clutches his pint. Every one of his interactions hums with aggression, the only language he can communicate in.

Though bloodthirsty and kinda dumb, Macca isn't wholly unrelatable - we can find solace in his patheticness. When confronted with something that he can't fix with his fists - his relationship with his son - he's useless, staring with a pleadingly canine expression at a domesticity he's totally unequipped to handle. Gradually we realise how little he has in life: no family, no job, no money, no opportunities. All he's got is a cloak of masculine bravado, which eventually means the only person he can relate to is borderline psycho Nathan - a dark reflection of himself that increasingly disgusts him.

Macca's emotional and economic confinement quickly becomes a microcosm of larger political problems. Thatcher's harrying of the north, leaving a trail of unemployment, diminished public services and social destruction left a frustrated, apathetic generation locked in limbo. Millions of unhappy people with nothing to do is a worrying presence for any politician, and so Thatcher's (tried, tested and repeated to this day) solution was divide-and-conquer. 

Marching on Together's smartest moments come when contrasting the nihilism of football hooliganism against the organised protests of the NUM. In the latter, divisions between 'firms' are revealed to be non-existent - vicious rivalries melting away in the face of a unified political struggle. It's this unity is that's the real political threat, Thatcher and her government know that football violence, whilst socially distasteful, is a short-term, transitory disruption to normality that reinforces rather than challenges the class system. Boiled down, the Thatcher philosophy is that it's better for the working class to be beating the shit out of each other rather than exercising their collective power.

You're doing Thatcher's work for her Macca!
Perversely this makes the beery, aggressive Macca Thatcher's ideal working class man. He's too stupid for self-reflection, ignorant of wider class struggle and eager to identify with false apolitical symbols. Marx would describe Macca as a typical lumpenproletariat; unlikely to achieve class consciousness and thus acting as a counter-revolutionary societal element. It's notable that Nathan, the young leader of the VYT, is a trainee accountant - a member of bourgeoisie literally manipulating the young working class into battle against each other. 

These meaty politics are played with a deft hand by writer Adam Hughes, the play as digestible as kitchen sink drama as it is political metaphor. Every performance is excellent pitched, with particular credit to Adam Patrick Boakes' Macca, grants this awful human being just the right sprinkling of pathos to gain audience's sympathies - a titanic job given his dialogue and behaviour. Similar kudos goes to Alex Southern's Nathan, who struts, curls his lip and cocks his head with a psychopath's stare - scarily confident in his abilities.

All too often the London stage can feel trivial; a litany of fluffy, pretentious trifles designed to tickle the sensibilities of middle-class theatregoers. Marching on Together carves out a space for itself as angry, intelligent, working class theatre. I had a wonderful time and, if the sinister grin and squinted gaze of Thatcher sends a shiver down your spine, I'm sure you would too.

Marching on Together is at the Old Red Lion until 28th February. Tickets here.

All images by Tania van Amse.

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