First staged at the National Theatre in 2002, Roy Williams’ dissection of racism and xenophobia feels chillingly timely in Nicole Charles’ revival, prescient even.
Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads is set in a south London pub on the day of the crucial World Cup qualifier between England and Germany in 2000. A gang of locals gathers to watch the match together, some of them fresh from success in their own football team, but as England start to lose – badly – the undercurrents of racial tension start to solidify; they can no longer be ignored.
It’s a big, noisy, sweary, sprawling play, stuffed full of characters. There’s volatile Lawrie (Richard Riddell), a proper troublemaker, a Begbie-type itching for a fight, and his relatively level-headed police officer brother (Alexander Cobb). There’s the team’s star striker, Barry (Makir Ahmed), with his Union Jack tattoo, and his former soldier brother Mark (Mark Springer), both black. There’s landlady Gina (Sian Reese-Williams) trying to keep the peace and Alan (Michael Hodgson), the quiet guy who claims to be a great reader of books and drops Enoch Powell quotes into conversation, masking his hate with words.
When Gina’s son has his phone nicked by some “black lads”, things quickly turn ugly. Tempers flare. All the bubbling nationalism, patriotism, anti-German sentiment, sexism and racism come rushing to the surface.
Charles – the director of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia – has a way with raucous group scenes. She marshals the large cast of characters well and makes the most of the Spiegeltent space, transformed by Joanna Scotcher into a boozer bedecked with England flags, faded carpets, a pool table and a working bar – you can even buy a drink there in the interval. Scenes that take place in the gents loos are glimpsed via a two-way mirror and Isaac Madge’s clever video design weaves the footage of the match into the action. Charles makes the scenes in which they all watch the game genuinely tense and exciting.
She’s assembled a really strong ensemble cast. There are some cracking performances here, particularly from the simmering Riddell – face puce with barely contained rage – and Williams, calmly trying to keep her pub from erupting. Hodgson is unnervingly memorable, imbuing Alan, the insidious barroom intellectual who cooly and calmly discusses his belief in the innate superiority of white people, with an understated air of menace. He demonstrates the damage that men like him can do, dripping their hateful ideas into people’s ears.
Some of the other characters are quite thinly drawn and the final act of violence arrives too abruptly, but what this revival so clearly demonstrates is how astute Williams’ play is about the percolation of hate and the fragility of society, how little it takes for fissures to appear. Charles’ revival makes it feels distressingly prophetic.