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The Spine by Nathan Powell at Camden People’s Theatre | Review

The Spine - Photographer Ryan Tomes
The Spine – Photographer Ryan Tomes

Stumbling around in the dark I found myself at the Stage Door of Camden People’s Theatre and was astonished to find a large skip filled with empty energy drink bottles. Someone must be high on ener-drenaline I mused. As the lights came up on the show I found out who.

This vibrant, kinetic, pulsating and uber-energetic show keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout and I defy anyone to watch it and not leave the theatre re-vitalised and, well, energised.

There’s some depressing stuff to imbibe, sure, but the final message of kindness, forgiveness and pure, unadulterated hope is a clarion call for a renewal of respect in our irascible Twitterised world. What a great script by Nathan Powell who is so well served by his electric and electrifying performers.

We’re dealing with three teenage footballers, apprentices at a top club, who are desperate to make it as professionals. We see their hopes we see their desires, we see their angst, we see their triumphs and we see their dismally depressing defeats – little defeats in the gym which matter just as much as the big defeats out on the pitch. Above all though we see their sweat, the sweat of hope, the sweat of disappointment, the sweat of elation and the pernicious, soul-sapping sweat of despair.

Using three actors Powell, who also directs, cleverly takes the spine of a team – the uncompromising centre back; the eye-of-a-needle-passing midfield playmaker; and the arrogant, up-front goal-poaching striker par excellence.
Said striker Hakeem is played by Malachi Pullar-Latchman with all the aplomb of a continental penalty-taker. Pullar-Latchman is cocky, and funny, and endearingly annoying and he gets across the confident, know-it-all, jokey persona of the player who’s good, who knows he’s good, and who knows that everyone knows he’s good. All this is done whilst running, jumping, stretching, pulling, pushing and generally doing stuff that gets you out of breath. It takes some talent to act your way, convincingly, through that. And, without giving away any spoilers, we see a real development of character with an infectious and moving empathy by the end.

Mid-fielder Kyle (Tristan Waterson) is the most vulnerable of the three and we have a subtle and engaging performance from Waterson through which we find ourselves sympathising with him though our initial instinct might be to side with Hakeem and tell him to ‘get real’ and not, I repeat NOT, go to the Club Counsellor. ’Cos she’ll tell the coach. And the coach will lose respect for you. And you’ll never make it. Yes. In the world of top football today, that happens. Still. There’s been some meticulous research here by Powell on these aspects of young footballers’ lives which makes the play real and authoritative and hard-hitting. Kyle has family problems and Waterson has fear of failure seeping from every pore – not a great recipe for success in a world of hyper-masculinity where the pressure-cooker atmosphere borders on bullying.

The triumvirate is completed with Liam, the Captain, the stopper, the less-than-glamourous defender, hard-as-nails with a marshmallow centre. Keith Rice’s character leaves everything out on the pitch and comes back in to make soppy mobile calls to his over-powering girlfriend and is inevitably the butt of the changing-room jokes. A straight-talking northerner he is unwittingly funny and is not a stranger to making entirely unintentional racist comments.

It’s a solid and thoroughly authentic performance by Rice who is also pivotal in keeping the team’s shape together through the highly athleticised nature of the show.

There’s some great original music by Conrad Kira that embellishes and enhances the pace and intensity of the show and the movement direction of Rachael Nanyonjo is a fascinatingly key element of the performance. How do
you show sport – especially football – on stage? Nanyonjo finds a way to make it vigorous and true-to-life. She’s helped by Phil Saunders’s subtle lighting design and Designer Kirsty Barlow’s clever and functional changing-room set with easily moveable benches. Not sure if I’d want to play in a bright orange strip but then again it’s not as bad as some of the kits you see on display these days!

Powell’s show is outstanding and the company, 20 Stories High, is about to embark on their Spring Tour with The Spine which I am certain will wow audiences wherever it goes. As for the three performers – sorry guys, it’s
going to be a while before you get to put your feet up. So keep taking the energy drinks!

By the way, I was clearly joking about the skip.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

Award-winning theatre company 20 Stories High, acclaimed for their dynamic and ground-breaking work by, with and for young people, presents the national tour of its latest production The Spine that lands at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, London (25-26 Feb) and Camden People’s Theatre, London (27-29 Feb).

Kyle, Liam and Hakeem dream of football, fame and fortune…after spending most of their teenage years being the spine of the team, the premier league is now at their fingertips.

But as they all reach for that golden contract, the cracks begin to appear as years of institutional racism, and hyper-masculinity begin to take their toll. Will the boys be strong enough to stick together, or will they elbow their way to the top?

The Spine is an explosive new show that shines a spotlight on a system that promises the world but leaves over 99% of young men on the side-lines.

With heavy beats, raw performances and silky football skills The Spine is not only a play about football but one which explores what it really means to be a man in the 21st Century.

Creative Team:
Writer/Director – Nathan Powell, Designer – Kirsty Barlow, Music and Sound – Conrad Kira, Movement – Rachael Nanyonjo, Lighting- Phil Saunders

Review at Camden People’s Theatre, London (27-29 Feb 2020).


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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