Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Bringing home the Ashes

They made me play cricket at school. Looking back, I approve. Cricket was widely seen as a boys' game and it was good to have the opportunity. I didn't even mind too much at the time.

Like every sport, cricket had its dangers. There was the hard ball hurtling in my direction and the scorn of the games mistress - and fellow players - every time I ducked or missed a catch. But I soon developed a strategy that made the game a source of pleasure. I made sure I had a book in my pocket and volunteered to field on the boundary line. Very few teenage players - boys or girls - can hit a cricket ball to the boundary and there was a convenient hedge nearby. I and my book would adjourn to the other side of the hedge where I would read in the sunshine. Books I enjoyed at the time included Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. I quite like fictional cricket matches.

This probably doesn't make me the ideal audience for Michael Pinchbeck's new play, The Ashes, which I saw at its final preview performance - it runs till late September. I wasn't really in the mood for theatre when I headed to Nottingham Playhouse. It didn't help that the lovely Cast bar, where, as a Backstage Pass member I have a discount, told me there was a 45-minute wait for food - even cold nibbles. It was only 50 minutes to curtain up. I settled down with a beer and surveyed the crowds. They were mainly male, which had a definite and unusual advantage - no queue for the ladies' loo.

It looks as though The Ashes will be a popular play. Harold Larwood, the cricketer at its centre was a Nottinghamshire lad who played for the county. The crowds in the bar included more cricketers and cricket fans than I usually observe at the theatre - but perhaps I was just more aware of conversations about cricket. It could be a tricky audience, I reflected, picking out flaws in details or cricketing stance. Looking at the length of the two parts of the play, I was further concerned. The first half was a mere 45 minutes and the second 75 - against the usual logic which makes the second act shorter than the first. I was full of doubts as I settled down to watch.

I already knew something of the subject of the play. The Bodyline tour, as the 1932-3 Ashes tour of Australia is known, is still discussed, often in relation to class as well as sporting ethics. In the 1930s the distinction between "gentlemen" (upper-class amateurs) and "players" (working-class professionals) remained an important one, although the national team drew from both groups. Discussions of the bodyline strategy, in which batsmen risked serious injury from fast bowling, often focus on the contrast between the public-school and Oxford-educated team captain, Douglas Jardine, and the two Nottinghamshire ex-miners, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce. This, as a friend pointed out, set up the risk that the play would be worthy and obvious. I settled in my seat without great hopes.

Within the first five minutes I realised that the play was going to work. It doesn't aim at naturalism - just as well, since the Playhouse stage isn't big enough for a cricket pitch - so all the actors, including the leads, took other roles as required, changing both attitudes and accents. However the actors convinced within each role they took. The cricketers in the audience plainly approved too. They were quickly receptive to references I found obscure and their appreciative laughter made the theatre a comfortable place. It was plain that the play was not going to be dully worthy.

Pinchbeck's play places the emphasis precisely where it needs to be: on character and events. There are ethical dilemmas but they are explored through the complex characters at the centre of the drama: Harold Larwood, played by Karl Haynes and Douglas Jardine played by Jamie de Courcey. The performances in these roles were stunning, even within an excellent ensemble cast. When I think of Larwood and Jardine in future, I suspect they'll always be embodied by Hayes' slight and determined figure and de Courcey's humourless intensity. Class mattered, of course, but these characters weren't cardboard cut-outs but people for whom class was one part of their complex individual experiences. The only slight problem came from the inevitable passivity of Lois Larwood (Sarah Churm) whose role was largely limited to staying in Mansfield, following the match at the cinema and expressing an admiration for Gracie Fields. But her final speech conveyed a depth of feeling that went far beyond the words she was given to say.

As a viewer, I was caught up in the English team's determination to win at all costs. This tour came, after all, in the wake of the Great War and members of the team must have spent part of their youth anticipating battle for king and country. But I winced when I saw film footage from the tour, showing the impact of bodyline (or "leg theory") bowling on the batsmen. And the longer part of the play didn't seem long at all as I was riveted by the tensions within the story.

I emerged from the play with a much greater respect for cricketers. As I stood in the bus queue afterwards, some of the cricketers from the audience were still discussing the ethics of bodyline as well as explaining theories of bowling or small aspects of the story omitted from the play. And that, I think, is how it should be.

Please note that the play has an undeservedly short run - you need to see it before 17th September. And apologies for my long absence from blogging. I was simply tired and needed a break. I'm back now.