Fever Pitch – The Opera review at Union Chapel, London – ‘an excellent score’

The company of Fever Pitch at Union Chapel, London. Photo: Claudia Marinaro The company of Fever Pitch at Union Chapel, London. Photo: Claudia Marinaro
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Written in 1992, Nick Hornby’s million-selling semi-autobiographical first novel about a fan’s obsession with Arsenal has been made into two films – the first starring Colin Firth, the second, transposed to Boston and featuring the Red Sox, starred Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. Now Highbury Opera Theatre has brought the story into the operatic league for the first time.

The game-plan is sound, combining the popularity of the beautiful game with the resonance of Arsenal’s nearby Highbury home. Speaking from the pulpit is the Commentator and among the worshippers are choirs of local adults and children in their red and whites, adding their own chants and commentary.

There’s only one major role, that of the central fan, Gooner – Nick in the book – but Tenor Robin Bailey tackles it with vocal attractiveness and an unstintingly naturalistic, understated flair that brings rich credibility to his journey from first match through unhealthy fixation to, finally even if temporarily, reaching a football/life balance.

Fever Pitch the opera is a game of two halves. Composer Scott Stroman (who conducts the snappy 10-piece ensemble) has written a score that plays to his strengths as a respected jazz musician, but the result, often sounding like a substitute for West Side Story waiting in the wings, creates a stylistic clash that is baffling.

Stylised waltzes, latino rhythms and big-band punches can’t bring much to bear upon football fanaticism. Skilfully crafted, colourful and brilliantly played as the music is – sitting in a jazz club, for example, you’d be made up – in the context of an opera about football, it’s like turning up to a match to find that the players are rolling around on bouncy castles.

A football opera with a clear attack and an excellent score that belongs to a different game