Knock-off tracksuits, Come on Eileen, hooligans and pickets: it’s Leeds in the early ‘80s, and it’s a war-zone. Adam Hughes’ latest play, Marching on Together, deals with his hometown’s recent history of violence. It’s a no-nonsense story of masculinity and belonging. We caught MoT at Moortown Social Club; not a venue you’d expect to find uncompromising realist drama. (Not the kind with scripts and actors, anyway.) But make no mistake, this was a proper play, with a proper audience: devoted LUFC supporters, dedicated theatre-goers, some ex-miners, maybe some ex-fighters, and the odd gangly, studenty-type with smooth fingers… I blended in as best I could.
The bulk of the play revolves around four men in a pub arguing over who’s the hardest. Macca (Adam Boates), the oldest, tries in vain to rebuild his shattered family life. He’s fresh out of Armley Prison. He’s alienated from his long-serving mate, Jono (Jim Mannering), who’s no longer defending the Club – who’s now fighting for work, not glory. Macca follows his tribal and paternal instincts, coaching young upstart Tommy (Joshua Garwood) in the art of a sturdy right-hook. Things quickly become complicated. Nathan (Alex Southern), leader of the Service Crew’s successor, the not-so-scary-sounding Very Young Team, calls Macca’s supremacy into question; meanwhile his wife, Linda (Donna Preston), nearing forgiveness, lays down an ultimatum: clean up your act, or clear off.
It’s an ambitious set-up. Not that it’s inherently dangerous touring a serious play round Leeds’ Clubs, but this grainy, up-in-your face blend, peppered with social commentary, could easily leave a bad taste. Leeds United has come a long way since the Crew’s glory days, which predate the play’s writer, director (Joshua McTaggart) and cast. The Club’s hardcore might be forgiven for asking themselves: what do these kids know about our past? Questions like this aside, Hughes’ script bravely hinges on the assumption that those old enough to remember tragic events like the Bradford Stadium fire are ready to suspend judgment. It acknowledges a community willing to confront hard truths from a fresh perspective.
© Adam Hughes
Adam Boates is outstanding as Macca. He’s coiled unbearably tight, seething and defensive, and charged with cross-wired impulses. He’s hard to watch. You’re worried if you catch his eye, he’ll leap into the audience and grab you round the collar. Jim Mannering and Donna Preston give grounded, matter-of-fact performances as Jono and Linda, Macca’s moral sparring partners, begging him get on with his life. Joshua Garwood and Alex Southern channel testosterone-pumped adolescence. Tommy’s bursting with blind enthusiasm; he’s springy, up for anything and fatally trusting. Nathan’s twisting sarcasm ratchets up the tension, as he bores under Macca’s skin. Joshua McTaggart has them tearing apart the set between scenes, charging through the audience, howling, chanting and taunting. These transitions work brilliantly: they keep the momentum spinning as Macca spirals out of control.
But the cast are half the story. What makes this play truly unique is the way its audience, staging and performers spontaneously fuse. There we all are, sipping our very reasonably priced pints of bitter, swapping stories of battles lost and won, as Macca and Jono sit across from us, in parallel, knocking back their drinks, and muttering the same jarring facts of life. There are moments of unintended comedy. We’ve just heard of a teenager brutally attacked at a Leeds-Dewsbury match, and as the characters stand silent on stage, someone grumbles behind us: ‘dickhead shouldn’t have worn a white tracksuit’. As the play reaches its finale, as Macca now stands alone, his passions spent, his Crew disbanded, and his life torn to shreds, he slams down his pint and belts out the eponymous LUFC anthem. The audience transforms into a match-day crowd, and without a second’s hesitation, follows suit: ‘We’ve been through it all together/And we’ve had our ups and downs/We’re gonna stay with you forever/Until the world stops going round’. Lights out, job done – standing ovation. Marching on Together hits its target head-on. For me, it’s the best example of community-oriented theatre I know: provocative and unashamedly compassionate. An unforgettable evening, for less than £2.80 a pint. Priceless (almost).
George Cooper (@georgekupar)
Marching on Together ran from 3rd – 28th February at the Old Lion Theatre, London, then 2nd – 7th March at six working men’s clubs across Leeds. You can read about Adam Hughes’ forthcoming projects here.