Northern Broadsides apparently rescued the script of Harold Brighouse’s 1914 play The Game from a Canadian University archive (the theatrical equivalent of a skip since plays need to be performed to stay alive) and it is a small treasure. You don’t find the same bravura comic writing that makes Hobson’s Choice (written two years later) such a crowd pleaser that it has been regularly performed for almost a hundred years, but the Game richly deserves to share the spotlight. I am very glad to see that it is out there claiming it’s rightful place. Writers who can combine warmth and humanity without giving in to the temptation to be over sentimental have a lot of charm, and Harold Brighouse is one of them. The Game is a wry look at class prejudices, family obligations and shifting ideas of morality, and the way that the assumptions of the generation brought up in the Victorian era were just beginning to be overturned by a younger generation who were feeling the wind of change in a new century and looking for a new way forward.
It is a perfect vehicle for Northern Broadsides, as it is a play with a warm generous heart, broadly written but believable characters, plenty of ideas and no sentimentality. It is set in a fictional Lancashire town in the Edwardian Era. The well heeled family at its centre are sports mad and the patriarch of the family, Austin Whitworth, runs the local football team. This is just at the point when the professional game is getting on its feet and he has found himself unable to keep up with the costs involved in keeping the team going and forced to sell his star centre forward, Jack Metherell. He needs his team to win the final game of the season, in spite of the fact that Jack now will be playing against them, in order to avoid ruin. When Jack gives in to the temptation to ask his highly principled former star player to match fix by playing badly and then finds that his independent spirited daughter plans to marry him you can just about say that the plot kicks off. These kind of scandals were by no means unknown in the early days of professional football and this would have been a topical theme for the Games first audiences.
It is very well performed, and there is no over acting which might be a temptation, given the characters, the company style and the intimate setting of the SJT. The writing is heightened for comic effect, which is exactly what is needed, but stays close to the truth and the performances are sensitive to this. The Whitworth’s are a believable warm close family who love and irritate each other in equal measure and the younger members of the family, a son who is a would be poet and two sports mad daughters, are delightful as they run rings round their indulgent father. Catherine Kinsella is particularly good as Elsie, a lively, forthright young lady who has yet to realise that life is full of hard knocks. When she meets her nemesis in her fiancee’s fearsome mother (Wendi Peters acting her heart out to magnificent effect) it is very moving to see her blithe assumption that everything would work out well being slapped down and her happy innocence being eroded. It is a hard lesson for her to learn and you watch her growing up before your eyes. I also liked Jos Vantyler’s performance as Leo, every inch the foppish young poet who was enjoying posing and playing on his youthful indolence for as long as he could get away with it and Phil Rowson as the star centre forward Jack Metherell. He had some of the best comic lines, “I wasn’t a man. I was a miracle!” and could get a laugh by staring into space and showing us his jaw line heroically. The ending is very cleverly written, signalled carefully but not overly obvious, a satisfying conclusion to a well structured play in which you feel that everybody may well get what they deserve, one way or another, even if they may have to wait a while.
A small treasure, one well worth revisiting, which found the right company to do it justice.