Roy Williams’ ferocious, funny and disturbing play Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads took aim – when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2002 – at what it meant to be black, white and English in 21st century Britain.
It was first revived in 2006 and now gets its second revival (and first for 13 years) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s new Spiegeltent (October 5-November 2). Sadly, as Roy says, it’s a revival that will show that not a lot has changed.
“It’s very, very troubling. No play can ever be the be-all and end-all and solve everything, but hopefully this play might well plant some little doubts into people’s minds that we need to do better than this. We need to be better people.
“Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you don’t need to hate, you don’t need to kill. It’s just something I’d want to say to everybody. Where is that hate coming from? There are many powerful people who are taking advantage of it and stoking the fire. I just don’t see a way out. It only feels like it is going to get worse…”
So it feels like a timely revival to Roy. He says he wasn’t surprised at the decision to revive it; much more, he was delighted.
Scoring high on foul language, threat and vulgar humour, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads is set on Saturday, October 7 2000. Gina, landlady of The King George pub, has a lot on her plate. The England vs Germany World Cup qualifying match is about to start, the pub football team is about to charge in and the TV’s on the blink. Over the next few hours, national defeat looms and xenophobic tensions rise, fuelled by the inarticulate fury of the pub team captain Lawrie and the insidious propaganda of right-wing extremist Alan. And while policeman Lee struggles to keep the peace, disillusioned squaddie Mark and Gina’s bullied son Glen are fighting their own demons.
The game actually happened. It was the home leg, a 0-1 defeat for England which led a year later to the return game in Germany which England famously won 1-5. Significantly, the home defeat was Kevin Keegan’s last in charge and also the last game at the old Wembley stadium.
“I knew that the game was coming up when I started writing the play. It just seemed perfect, an England Germany game and the last game before they knocked the old Wembley down. I just thought that it would work dramatically. And the actual score suited the play. England lost. If England had won, there would not have been the same tension. You can sense the fans’ growing frustration. England weren’t bad, but it was a very boring game. England didn’t play particularly well. They were just playing the way England played, lots of long balls, no skill, no creativity. I needed to choose a play, and I just thought it would be challenging for me, whatever the score.
“At the time, I was keen to write about racism to a certain degree but mostly about nationalism. Back then, there were a lot of conversations about what it meant to British, and I wanted to write a play about the extremes of nationalism that some people chose to go to in order to show that they belong to this country or this group of people.”
And football is the launchpad: “You can’t get more nationalistic than that. Back then nationalism was rearing its ugly head, like it is now. You had the rise of the far right and they were winning council seats. And football is a very nationalistic game. You swear allegiance. It is ‘This is my team, that is your team and my team is better than your team.’”
The CFT warns: the production has extremely strong and explicit language including racial slurs. Age guidance of 16+. Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads will be performed in The Spiegeltent, a pop-up space designed to recreate a South London pub setting.