Richard Bean’s The English Game is to cricket as Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice is to poker. It is both a love letter to the game and, yet, about much more than balls and wickets, it is about men and their friendships and, as the title implies, it is also about England and what it means to be English.
Amateur cricket team The Nightwatchmen gather each weekend in a grubby London park to play a match. They’re a mixed bunch, this team, conveniently microcosmic. They include an aging, once famous rock star with a tattoo of an electric guitar on his arm and a bottomless supply of bad jokes; a public school educated actor; a good-hearted GP with a second home in France; and a man on the brink of a messy divorce – and maybe also a nervous breakdown.
As the game itself (which doesn’t really get going until the second half) takes place off stage, Bean concentrates instead on the banter between the men, their bickering, their stories. While Bean is adept at, with only a few strokes of his brush, creating men who feel as if they have lives beyond the cricket pitch, some of his characters are more vividly drawn than others. There is Will, a political commentator and one time liberal, whose views have shifted as he has gotten older. He now worries that is children are becoming terminally credulous before delivering a rant on Islam that proves more shocking than anything spouted by the interloper Reg, a last minute stand-in who has failed to endear himself to his team-mates with his dubious comments in defence of Enoch Powell. Will’s outburst is genuinely surprising, causing a rift between him and his friend Theo, the GP and lay-preacher, which you suspect will echo on long after the match his finished.
Sean Holmes’ production ably juggles its dozen or so characters and captures the natural rhythm of conversation and the subtle shifts in relationships. It is, at times, rather predictable. When Will leads his ancient father, Len, out to his seat at the start, the audience suspects already that he won’t make it to the end, a feeling only intensified when Theo comments that Len has gone down hill of late.
Along with the old man’s failing health, there is a sense of a greater social breakdown that underscores the often light-hearted feel of the piece; it is no incidental detail that their cricket pavilion has been burnt down recently. But while Bean clearly has greater state-of-the-nation things to say, it is the appealing feel of a long summer Sunday well spent that lingers after the play ends.
The large (all male women don’t play much of a role in this play’s world) ensemble cast have a lovely rapport. Robert East gives an excellent, understated performance as Will; Tony Bell, playing the high-strung Shawn, also subtly suggests some deeper troubles beyond his marital discord and Howard Ward strikes just the right note as the considerate and kind-minded Theo. Fred Ridgeway saves the character of Reg from becoming a one-note hate figure and Peter Bourke’s performance, in his small role as the pedantic, officious Bernard, captain of the opposing team, may be a caricature but at least it’s a funny one.
And the crucial question? Do you need to be a cricket nut to enjoy this play? It helps I suppose, but it’s far from a necessity. I know next to nothing about the game and yet liked the play immensely. These men are connected by more than just a shared love of a sport, they have spent innumerable Sundays in each other’s company, they have shared the elation of winning and the gut-punch of defeat. Bean is a very warm and humane writer and this is the quality that shines through in his work, even when his characters are discussing the ins and outs of the LBW rule (leg before wicket, I had to look it up).