Following a review of a play about cricket yesterday (When The Eye Has Gone) it seems only right that balance should be upheld by turning the attention to football. Thus, it seemed appropriate to head for Memoirs Of An Asian Football Casual, courtesy of the Leicester Curve who put up this archive recording from 2018 for viewing way back at the start of lockdown. Thanks for leaving it up long enough for me to get to it but then I suppose that the restrictions have applied for longer in Leicester than just about anywhere else. The play is based on the autobiography of Riaz Khan and has been adapted by Dougal Irvine.
Despite the title, football is not the absolutely dominating aspect of this play. Rather it is about growing up in Britain during the 1980s. The piece starts by spiralling backwards to show the path the Khan family followed to arrive in Britain in the first place and, more importantly, establishes the central character as one of Pathan heritage – a tribe who were noted for their fierceness as warriors resisting invasion. For that, of sorts, is how Riaz gradually comes to identify himself. After years of racial abuse, he finds himself drifting towards the so-called Baby Squad an infamous “crew” of Leicester City football hooligans most noted for wearing expensive designer clothes before it became fully fashionable to do so – the casual look. In essence he has joined a modern day warrior tribe except they have no real sense of fighting for any cause as noble as protecting their homeland; for them it is all about the buzz and the security that comes from “belonging”. Bravado and a desire to dominate soon ensure that Riaz is in jail and when he emerges the pattern of hooliganism continues. Eventually he starts to see himself for what he has become and starts along a different path.
At certain points the play does sail quite close to the wind in terms of glorifying violence but mostly avoids this by presenting the scenarios and leaving us to make up our own minds. Despite an extremely wide range of characters appearing throughout (easily 100 or so) all the roles are played by just two young actors with stupendous energy and control. Jay Varsani is mostly Riaz and Hareet Deol is mostly his brother Suf, but both play an extraordinary range of their family members, the police and prison inmates/officers, members of their own and other gangs, children, teachers and so on. At one point Deol embodies all twelve members of the Baby Squad (of very mixed heritage) in under two minutes – an extraordinary feat as all are clearly differentiated. Both actors have an infectious energy and drive that is quite staggering – the play is worth watching just for these performances alone.
A traverse setting is used providing the immediate feel of grandstands looking down on a football pitch and there is a feast of 1980s nostalgia on display especially in the costumes (Fila, Adidas, Pringle, etc.); Grace Smart is responsible for these elements. The soundtrack (Tasha Taylor Johnson) also contains many hits of the time. I’m not sure how that worked for the audience (the video seems to have been shot at a schools’ matinee) but as a swiftly painted canvas of life in a different era it creates a vividly painted picture. Charlotte Burton’s lighting design is extremely good and gives the piece an infectious energy outside of that radiated by the two actors. Nikolai Foster provides direction which creates a sense of restlessness and constant change and ensures that repeated use of the “N” word and, especially, the “P” word – standard vocabulary for then but fraught with danger today – is kept from causing offence by means of a clever device.
The only false note I felt was right at the end. I’m not going to give away what happens, but I found myself thinking “That’s a clever twist” and then minutes later “No, it’s not”. That aside the show provides a couple of riveting hours telling a story that continues to resonate with the re-emergence of far-right wing groups onto the political landscape. Leicester’s continued enforced lockdown presumably means that the Curve is going to continue to struggle for some time to come. Theatres need just as much support as football clubs so do support them if you can.