Simon Ward reviews Fever Pitch The Opera at The Union Chapel
The Union Chapel can lay claim to be the very heart of Islington, with the Town Hall just down the road, and the old Highbury Stadium a short walk away for the fans streaming out of the neighbouring station. So a more fitting venue for this celebratory show would be hard to find. Whereas the brilliance of Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiographical book was to capture any fan’s predicament, not just an Arsenal fan’s, this show wears its allegiance on its replica shirt sleeve.
There is a simple set – a giant clock face set at 3pm for kick-off, a backdrop reminding us of the pre-Hillsborough days of standing on terraces in black-and-white – and a large multitasking cast all decked in red and white scarves under unforgiving lights. Pitched somewhere between a village fête and a school play, it would be churlish to pick holes in an evening so full of enthusiasm and excitement.
Fever Pitch charts the many lows and occasional highs of a life in thrall to football. It is all too painfully aware of the absurdity. What kind of madness is it that allows the machinations of 11 men you don’t know to bring you elation or misery? The very staging of the show by the Highbury Opera Theatre starts to answer the question – it is about a feeling of belonging, and of being absorbed into something larger than yourself. Something of the same spirit is evident in the engaging commitment of a cast of all ages and talents.
The songs (libretto by Tamsin Collison and music by Scott Stroman) make imaginative and witty use of terrace chants and football clichés. The jazz-infused score is catchy, although perhaps missing a stand out hit. There is a thrilling moment when a lone voice in the crowd starts singing ‘Arsenal till I die’ until it is gradually taken up by the whole ensemble. Some may cavil at the word ‘opera’ – it often has the feel more of a Sondheim musical – but after Jerry Springer, who really cares anymore? Still there is some variability in singing styles – Joanna Harries as the girlfriend/wife in particular has a more operatic delivery whereas Robin Bailey as the Gooner hero has a more musical theatre style. They both sing well, however, as does Robert Gildon as the Dad. Scott Stroman also conducts with gusto – living every moment with his cast.
There is a clever device whereby a Greg Dyke lookalike in a John Motson sheepskin (Tim Maby) interjects with commentary to move the plot along. This is used to particularly nail-biting effect to recount the legendary climactic match in 1989 when Arsenal clinched the title at Anfield with seconds to spare. It is a triumph of the piece that we are nervous, in spite of knowing the result in advance.
One day the show may develop into something else, in which case some tweaks would be required. The children’s voices are too quiet, and there is too great a contrast between miked and unmiked voices. At one point there is an elaborate jigsaw backdrop designed to show the passing of time which fails because there is not enough room on the stage to see it behind the actors. The significance of the clock, and the precarious moving of the hands, is not really clear. There is a strange hooligan scene which is not well integrated into the whole.
But these are mere details. It’s an uplifting night in a fabulous venue. (The bar is a gem that was completely unknown to me and is almost worth the price of admission on its own.). The power of theatre and music to energise a community is demonstrated here in all its red-and-white glory.
Fever Pitch The Opera is running at The Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, London N1 on Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th September, shows at 3pm and 7.30pm