In looking for a powerful theatrical experience, a new state-of-the-nation play is usually not a good place to start. The risk of being bored by an evening of earnest political orthodoxy is too high to ignore. The English Game, at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, is a play which certainly falls into this category, being about multicultural diversity and social division. However, it is outstandingly, surprisingly good. Watching it was precisely the kind of experience, different from anything film or TV can provide, that theatre ought to offer and so rarely does. I hope, following its tour of the provinces, it will open again soon.
The drama takes place on a Sunday afternoon, when a team of amateur cricketers gather somewhere in greater London for one of their matches. They call themselves The Nightwatchmen — which, as I found out later, is a cricketing term, meaning a lower-order batsman who comes in to bat higher up the order than usual near the end of the day’s play. His job is to remain in until close of play (and hence overnight) to protect the better batsmen from going out in what may be a period of tiredness, so they can be at their best the next day. The team’s name suggests a very English self-deprecation, but — given the play’s concerns – it also suggests something about what is happening to Englishness itself.
It opens with a powerfully English set, which instantly creates a multivalent mood; with birdsong and a few cuckoo calls in the background, we see a wide, warm, sunlit expanse of green parkland underneath a clear sky. This idyll is blighted by a few unhealthy looking shrubs, ill-kept grass, the vandalised remains of a pavilion and a large orange litter bin. There is a neat heap, centrally placed, of dog poo. A very English looking man of about 60 comes in, wearing shorts, sandals and a battered straw hat, with support bandages on his knees, carrying a cricket bag and a deck chair. Noticing the poo, he sticks a feather in it and goes out to a camper van offstage, to fetch his old father to watch the game from the deckchair, and then to set out the tea.