Love It If We Beat Them
Newcastle Live Theatre
Thursday 2 - Saturday 25 March 2023
Live Theatre is celebrating 50 years of championing new writing in the North East. It has been of hotbed of both fledgeling writers and actors over the years. Their latest play follows their proud tradition as it holds up a mirror at the region, its people and their culture.
1996 is still a massive year for many older people of Newcastle. It is a year of folklore for the younger people. In addition to Tony Blair's Labour being a government in waiting, it was also the year that Newcastle United nearly did it. Many of us of a certain vintage will remember seeing "King" Kevin Keegan wearing his Adidas top getting excited about the prospect of the last few matches of the 1995/96 season. He knew that not only would he love it - so would the Toon Army who followed him.Thus Rob Ward's play starts in this era of Newcastle history. Dean Bone had been a lone figure at the pool table as the audience took their seats. He appears as Michael, a lad struggling to find work. A man willing to commute to Doncaster in order to get work as a miner. As the show begins he is joined by David Nellist as Len - a local politician who is very left of Blair. A union man and a councillor, Len sees the recent death of their MP as an opportunity to seek election to Parliament. He assumes the full support of those around him and that includes Michael.At the funeral of the deceased MP Michael drops the news of Len's intended political move to Len's wife Jean, performed by the ever versatile Jessica Johnson.
But this is mid 90s New Labour. Tony Blair's party were happily parachuting candidates into safe seats and this is no different as Victoria Hetherington has arrived on the scene. Born originally in Wallsend, she has spent much of her life in Manchester - which is as good as "down south" as far as Len is concerned.The story then examines the humour, the heartbreak and relationships of the four characters. In the foreground are both the by-election and the rollercoaster that is the football season. The progress for the election between the candidates is handled well by both writer Rob Ward and director Bex Bowsher. Events are taking place but they are not overexplained. The exposition is kept to the minimum and the audience given the credit of intelligence.
Using a pair of microphones, the cast give radio highlights of the football matches, though I don't recall David Batty passing the ball forwards.But there is also the personal story. Jessica Johnson is able to swing from brassy wife in public to having issues in private so well. Likewise David Nellist is able to resent the stubborn Len who doesn't suffer fools lightly. Dean Bone captures that sheer lack of hope that generation X had at the time for a decent job and all of the security that comes with it. Eve Tucker presents election candidate Victoria as bold as brass. The character is no wallflower which acts as a nice counterpoint to Len's traditional views.A major aspect that first strikes you when you arrive in the venue is the set design. The traditional stage has been ripped out and a 90s bar has been installed around the edge - with those blackboards that many pubs had at the time - and a pool table in the centre. Designer Alison Ashton has taken advantage of the space's flexibility. The choice of colours to light it up by Lighting Designer Anna Reddyhoff bringing back memories of the popular bars in the 90s.
A great tight, talented ensemble bring a lively script to life. With clear parallels to the current political battles - and a near miss by the football team - make this a relevant play in 2023. This is a classic Live Theatre production and we are lucky to have the Quayside venue on our doorstep.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Von Fox Productions
A must see for fans of Newcastle United and those who remember the politically exciting days of 1996, tickets for Love It If We Beat Them are on sale now from www.live.org.uk and Box Office on (0191) 232 1232.