Okay, confession time. The last time I went to watch a football match I was six years old. Supporting Norwich City, if you’re interested. Fortunately for me (and anyone else in the audience unfamiliar with the beautiful game) Future Theatre’s Offside goes well beyond the intricacies of the sport, mixing history and fiction to tell an empowering tale about pursuing your dreams.
This three-hander focuses on a traditional buddy narrative, following the fictional characters Micky (Marieme Diouf) and Keeley (Fizz Waller) as their bond of friendship grows as they train and compete for positions in Englands women’s squad. Interspersed throughout this narrative are jumps into the past to learn the stories of Emma Clarke and Lily Parr, two inspirational women from footballing history. Their presence is used to highlight the long standing prejudice against women playing football and it astutely contextualises just how significant it is that, here in the modern day, Micky and Keeley are able to publicly play for an England team. They are truly fascinating stories that emphasise the shameful sexism women have experienced in the past and, unfortunately, still experience today.
This story is told at lightning pace through a mixture of direct address, dialogue, spoken word and football anthems. The production is unashamedly loud, with all the fervour and excitement of a football match, mixing fast-paced training montages with thumping football chants that composer Tom Adams skilfully imbues with theatrical beauty via three-part harmonies. The sense of ensemble between the cast is addictive and, combined with a simple but adaptable set, the production buzzes throughout with match day excitement.
The developing relationship between Micky and Keeley is delicately plotted and delivered with expert precision by Doiuf and Waller. Each character has a secret they are trying to hide from the prying eyes of the media, and the hardship of Micky’s relationship with another female player is made painfully real by Doiuf’s superb performance. Jessica Dennis sets the gold standard for multi-rolling, shifting between characters and accents with effortless style. Her depiction of a handful of different shameless journalists feel startlingly real despite being almost grotesque and stereotyped in performance.
One thing that felt out of place however was the overblown characterisation of historical figures Parr and Clarke. The depiction of Lily Parr in particular plays upon conventional Yorkshire stereotypes and, often played for laughs, feels harmful to the authenticity of the stories. What is powerful about these characters is the reality of their stories and yet, the fictional Micky and Keeley are treated with more sincerity. It doesn’t help that the time shifts are initially quite formulaic and, whilst this stage language does becomes slicker and more inventive as the show progresses, the ’history’ sections jar with the productions pacing.
But despite this all, the power of their stories shines through. Offside is a loud and proud theatrical rally that examines the sexism rife within the football industry of the past and of today. It criticises the game’s inseparable relationship with negative journalism and notions of ‘celebrity’. It highlights the daily struggle with sexism that women experience, and not just when playing football. But it also goes even bigger than that. Offside is about pursuing your dreams and ambitions in the face of unfairness and inequality. It’s about understanding and loving what makes you who you are. And it’s about uniting for a future where these issues will be historical, not contemporary.