Cards on the table: I have to declare a non-interest. I’m a Spurs supporter. This is a solo show about Arsenal. The Wenger Years to be precise. So if you support Arsenal you’ll adore this show. Though if you love football, and don’t follow Arsenal, then I believe you’ll still appreciate this show. Even if you love football but support Spurs and are not too keen on their North London rivals then I’m pretty convinced you will find plenty to like and admire in this show.
And if you’ve just beamed down from planet Sol, know nothing about football, have never heard of Arsenal and assume Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp are Fortnite Skull Trooper Skins (no, I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about) then I still think you’ll find the show fun, witty, clever and fully worth the ticket money.
It’s called Wengerball but it’s really about the hierarchy of a football club and the internal machiavellian machinations that make a club tick but at the same time don’t make it tock. Raphael Wakefield, who wrote the show, performs a myriad of larger than life characters utilising the solidity of a Tony Adams, the panache of an Emmanuel Petit and the flair of a Robert Pires (enough, already, with the player comparisons ok? Ed.) We have Stan Kroenke who’s all irony’s-lost-on-me-follow-the-money-laced-with-a-tinge-of-Trump American and his introverted and rather gosh cartoonist son, Josh. We have the Russian oligarch Alisher Burkhanovich Usmanov, metal magnate (I like that) and Arsenal shares hoover-upper. We have a weird collection of board members who have leapt straight out of a Dickens novel and we have, best of all, the iconic, pixie-vampire fixer-in-chief, David Dein, puppet-master turned puppet who was the architect of the Wenger years but who in his post-ousting crazed lust for revenge (he calls it redemption) sells his soul (shares) to the devil (the metal-garch). We are intrigued and aghast and bemused and enthralled with not just this plethora of real-time caricatures but the ease with which Wakefield slips seamlessly from one to another, and to another, and back again. This is character comedy on speed-dial and it leaves us reeling with amused disbelief at a wondrous new comic talent and we leave with our funny-bones aching and all our hopes that football is simply just a game between 22 players in which the Germans win on penalties completely crushed. Bill Shankly famously said that football is not a matter of life and death: it’s more serious than that. Yes. It’s about power and money.
Although WakeField’s main objective is the chortlelization of the Football Club board room, with such a rich seam of comic potential in Managerland as well he can’t resist the temptation to stray into the all-pervading reality-fantasy world of that Portuguese man-o-waffle, the guy who self-describes his persona as The Special One. Yes, it would surely be remiss of our redoubtable performer to scratch over without a mention the Wenger nemesis, the saviour of football irony, the feeder of our need for ego-eccentricity, the man whom we can always count on to bring nugget-like literary jewels of light to our shadowy world of football ignorance: it is, of course, the one, the only, the messianic José Mourinho. (My Chelsea supporting editor is going to put a red-blue line through this whole bit so you won’t be reading it.) Wakefield uses his malleable features, his frighteningly accurate accent, his acute observational skills in perfecting mannerisms to present José in all his smug, knowing, inimitable glory. I use the word inimitable advisably of course as clearly, Wakefield can imitate Mourinho to perfection.
Fourth walls pose no hazard for our intrepid impersonator, as he leaves the stage and engages with the audience. (Yeah, I know, it happens a lot at the Fringe). He picks on a nice guy in the front row (note to self: always avoid the front row at the Fringe) and first makes his polite and gentle acquaintance; then, later, he starts up a friendship; and finally he returns to our poor, bewildered, audience patsy and, kneeling astride his lap, he proceeds to make a very individual Portuguese kind of love to the poor bloke whom I spotted in the foyer after the show making an urgent call to his therapist. But I’m sure he felt special.
So, if you fancy being seduced by The Special One then go to Wengerball and sit in the front row. If you want a good laugh then turn up and sit anywhere. And if you want to experience an accomplished, confident, erudite solo comic performer on the top of his game then just go: you won’t be disappointed. And you’ll discover Patrice.
Review by Peter Yates
In his debut show, character comedian Raphael Wakefield charts the rise and fall of his idol, Arsène Wenger, and asks what it means to become successful. As heard on BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Newsjack. Directed by James McNicholas (BEASTS, Horrible Histories).
13:20, 31 JUL – 26 AUG 2019