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The Greater Game review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘engaging and touching’

Charlie Clements and Danny Walters in The Greater Game at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton Charlie Clements and Danny Walters in The Greater Game at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Michael Head’s new play The Greater Game derives from the true story of a group of close-knit young footballers who exchanged the playing fields of east London for the battle fields of northern France.

Based on the book They Took the Lead by Stephen Jenkins, the play shows how Clapton (now Leyton) Orient became the first English Football League club to join the 17th (Service) Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, which became known as the ‘footballers’ battalion’. In all 41 players, staff and supporters volunteered, with three being killed in the battle of the Somme exactly a hundred years ago.

We see how the young men bond amid rivalry and banter during training sessions – with a stereotypical unfit player who takes short cuts and a dim-witted one who’s accident prone, as well as obligatory jokes about the south/north divide and Millwall fans. But after moving from the goal line to the frontline they support each other during the horrors of trench warfare. Although the war’s futility is briefly raised, as well as conflict with a callous officer, the emphasis is much more on the men’s friendship and loss rather than politics.

Director Tilly Vosburgh retains our engagement in a show that goes a bit beyond extra time. Suzie Inglis’ design features a wall of recruitment posters, while Ben Wallace’s flashing lights and John Leonard’s machine-gun fire soundtrack evoke the chaos of battle. Nick Hancock conveys a paternalistic sad kindliness as the team’s ‘gaffer’, with Will Howard and Peter Hannah as lifelong best Geordie mates who give their all in a team game.

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Engaging and touching portrayal of young footballers in the First World War