EFR - Reviews of On the Bench

On the Bench

Thu 4th – Mon 29th August 2011

reviews

Annabel James

at 11:22 on 19th Aug 2011

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Five women pretend to be footballers for an hour and it’s stylish, snappy and aggressive from the start. Class Stage Productions’ excellent piece uses stylised masculine physicality and constant misogynistic language to construct a set of characters who are at once shockingly obscene and wonderfully bawdy.

The script is hilarious because it’s clever too. Kirsty Eyre’s writing endows each character with a particular stereotype to exploit: Scooner, the captain, has an impending court case for sex with underage girls; smart guy Brownie never meant to end up in football and talks of going to law school afterwards. As the play describes these England team members slowly sinking into decline there are endless witty touches, such as the copy of Heat magazine which Scooner places his hand on to swear the oath in court, or the Bardot ‘Je t’aime’ overture to French footballer JJ’s song about why he is actually a God. The cast is superbly talented at delivering physical theatre, music, mime and a host of accents at rapid fire speed, and you barely have time to catch your breath in the scene changes covered by garishly loud music.

My only gripe with the production – and one that came as a surprise – was the ending, at which point this hard-hitting but upbeat exposé of the worst of mindless, affluent chauvinism suddenly focussed on a moment of tragedy when the media furore surrounding footballers takes its toll on a member of the team. I kept expecting the piece to bounce back into comedy before it concluded, or even to pop one more gag in just at the end, but the script seemed crafted with a desire to leave the serious implications of the football world resonating in the minds of the audience. Certainly, I was glad it made the point that although the lives of these people might seem farcical they are not immune to great unhappiness – but the script was rather heavy-handed in its communication of this message, which worked to the detriment of the overall show.

Brutal emotional U-turn aside, however, ‘On the Bench’ is an extremely funny and unapologetically confrontational exploration of a side of modern society which deserves more attention.

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Kate Abnett

at 12:02 on 19th Aug 2011

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On The Bench is one of two Edinburgh shows by Class Stage Productions, both penned and directed by Kirsty Eyre. Shortlisted for BBC Sharps and with previous writing and directing credits including Happy Chuffing Christmas and Class, she functions with the wit and energy of a female John Godber, and On The Bench is a great fusion of comic writing and stylised theatre.

The production is advertised as a “sassy all-woman show...written and directed from a woman’s point of view”. However, when the initial laugh at females delivering misogynistic and laddishly bawdy lines was had, it became clear that much more than gender was being scrutinised. The corruption of practises like match fixing, the unjust relationship between sport and wealth, and public enemy number one – The News of the World - all came under fire.

After a while, I stopped noticing the gender discrepancy between the actors and their characters – this is testament to each cast member’s absolutely brilliant characterisation. The use of a male voiceover only served to demonstrate how realistic the actresses’ portrayals of men were. Spitting, gurning and seriously swaggering shoulders kept the illusion of masculinity intact from start to finish and man of the match goes to Donna Marsh, for the amount of time she spent with her hands down her football shorts. The first few minutes were a bit heavy on the bawdy pelvic thrusting that ensued whenever a reference to sex was made (this is a play about premiership footballers, perhaps ticket sales go towards the actors’ impending hip replacements). However, in a play where a lack of subtlety is kind of the point being made, pantomime gestures like these did serve a purpose.

The professionalism of the actresses was perhaps most evident in their faultless grasp of accents. Much like the sexual claims of their characters, the girls nailed everything from French, to Scouse, to Scottish with ease. Joanne Jollie’s thick slurring accent squeezed every last drop of comic potential out of the script. Her portrayal of JJ Le Dieu - the Frenchman whose dual nationality allows him to play for England and whose God-complex and schizophrenia allows him to be really hilarious – was carried by her French drawl, which had the audience in stitches.

Scene changes were completely seamless, and although partly down to the actresses’ ability to change character in a split second, the directing had much to do with this. Choral and contrapuntal speech, very stylised movement and techniques like slow motion were executed in a fast, exciting whirlwind of scene changes. The show appears extremely well rehearsed and refined, one of its best features being its impeccable timing.

The props used were minimal, yet each one gave the audience a laugh or information integral to the play – a character reading a tabloid with the headline ‘twenty years later’ was a stylish opening to a scene set in the future. Fake ears and a packet of Walker’s also introduced us to a brilliant parody of Match of the Day presenting that made exploited the ridiculous rhetoric of football commentary.

Of Class Stage Productions’ two shows, this definitely has the advantage. Where On The Bench examines the sexual stereotypes of football stars, the later show Dances For Wolves gives the same treatment to female strippers, the aim of the project being to find out “whether women make better male footballers of female strippers”. Perhaps due to it being on first, On The Bench is the fresher, funnier play. A sterling cast, consistently sparkling writing and its slick, quick pace make this show a must see for fans of comedy, football or Gary Lineker’s ears.

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