The irony of a show about football lasting considerably less than 90 minutes, without an interval (or half-time break) was not lost on me. And what really are the chances of the England team (of whatever gender) winning a major international tournament? Delusions of grandeur aside (what number have we reached now in the men’s game – 51 ‘years of hurt’?), there doesn’t seem to be all that much to differentiate women’s football from men’s football, at least as it is portrayed in Offside. The pep talks are just as corny but just as inspirational, the dietary and fitness regimens just as stringent. But this play asserts that it is off the pitch that extra burdens are carried by women footballers. It isn’t often, if at all, that a microphone is shoved towards a male footballer immediately after a match, accompanied by a question from a journalist about his body shape or his domestic life. When asked by one reporter (Daphne Kouma, who doubles up as more characters than I can consciously remember) who inspires them, Mickey Adolay (Tanya-Loretta Dee) and Keeley Finnegan (Jessica Butcher) name Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr respectively. The reporter, perhaps with some justification – I say ‘perhaps’, my own knowledge of the history of football being quite rudimentary – looks utterly nonplussed. Is race as much of a discriminating factor as gender to this day? Probably: Parr has a Wikipedia page; Boustead, apparently the world’s first black woman footballer, does not.
The accompanying music and sound effects did not add much to the compelling performances from this trio, and eventually became more irritating than helpful. I was intrigued by the alignment posed in the play between the rise of women’s football and the wider fight to improve the rights of women in society at large. I am not wholly convinced the play was entirely successful in this assertion. It talks about the 1921 Football Association banning of women’s football from “all FA-affiliated grounds”. But this took women’s football in the opposite direction to, say, women’s suffrage in the UK. Parliament passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, so that women voted on exactly the same terms as men in the 1929 General Election; the FA ban was not rescinded until 1971.
The text is nonetheless well written, more poetic than naturalistic, maximising dramatic effect. I rather enjoyed an amusing and satirical response to the FA ban, in which the idea is put forward that women should likewise be banned from domestic chores and childcare on similar grounds to them not being permitted to play football. That is to say, if it is unsuitable for the fairer sex to be exerting physical energy on a pitch, the same should apply in the home.
There’s a lot of description of events in the play. I should imagine people who enjoy football fixtures might have wanted more action than talking about matches. Their patience is eventually rewarded as some physical theatre takes place, and as I wondered how the play could achieve a quasi-realistic rendering of 22 women slugging it out on a football pitch, the play provides a solution. It is regretful that it doesn’t utilise the opportunity. At the end, in ‘stoppage time’ (so to speak), a video montage of key moments in women’s football plays. Unfortunately the images whizz by far too quickly to make much meaningful sense of any of it. I couldn’t see why video technology couldn’t have been used to better depict what it is like to “play for England”.
Backstories relating to both Mickey and Keeley’s families felt too rushed, making the resolutions to the challenges faced by the football stars too neat and pretty for a play that otherwise suggested that the fight for recognise women in football is far from over. Therefore, the show being less than a full-length football match would be isn’t so ironic after all. This is a determined attempt to tell an important story, but it needs a little more refining.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Inspired by the extraordinary experiences of real female footballers, OFFSIDE provides an untold commentary on the breakthroughs and limitations in women’s football, exploring wider themes of inequality, self-belief and empowerment.
It is 1881. It is 1921. It is 2017. Four women from across the centuries live, breathe, and play football. Whilst each of them face very different obstacles in pursuing their dream profession, the possibility that the beautiful game will change their futures – and the world – is tantalisingly close.
Offside is told through lyrical dialogue, poetry, and punchy prose, placing the audience on the touchline of the game of a lifetime.
The play explores the story of Carrie Bousted in Stirling, Scotland 1881 – the first black professional female footballer; Lily Parr of Dick Kerr Ladies and the introduction of the FA ban in 1921, preventing women from using FA pitches; and a fictional representation of the contemporary game, explored through two characters, Mickey and Keeley.
Co-Writers: Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish
Director: Caroline Bryant
Designer: Beth Oppenheim
Composer: Tom Adams
Movement Director: Diane Alison-Mitchell
Lighting Designer and Production Manager: Dylan Tate
Assistant Director: Sophie Ellerby
Dramaturgical Support from the Traverse Theatre
27th & 28th March 2017: OMNIBUS, London