Review: Beating Berlusconi – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” For many, Bill Shankly’s quote could sum up Liverpool. A city of intense football passion and rivalry, loyalty to one of the city’s two football teams are instilled from birth.

Football has brought the city success but also tragedy. Tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough still cast a dark shadow over the community. It is, though, one of Liverpool FC’s finest hours that provides the spark of inspiration for John Graham Davies’ play.

In May 2005, Liverpool are playing AC Milan in the Champions League Final at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. At half time things aren’t going well, with Liverpool losing 3-0. Liverpool Fan Kenny has risked his finances and his marriage to be here and he’s in desperate need of alcohol to lift his spirits. As he wanders the labyrinth stadium he somehow finds himself in the VIP area, quaffing champagne with Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Like many of the seemingly most absurd tales, this story is based on real life but while forming the centre piece of the play there is more here than this anecdote. Alongside the tale of Kenny’s remarkable journey to Turkey we also get to explore Liverpudlian social development, prejudice, loyalty, and a sense of almost tribal belonging. Politics come in for much scorn but it turns out to be a cross party drubbing – Thatcher may be described as a Nazi in a dress but Blair and New Labour fare little better.

Paul Duckworth switches from character to character with consummate ease. It’s a huge array of personalities to portray but the delineation is always clear. There is plenty of colourful humour (and language) here but also moments of deep poignancy. With just a table, two chairs and some video highlights Duckworth delivers a personable and engaging performance.

Like the beautiful game itself, this is a play of two halves and while it’s played at pace it does seem slightly overlong. There is so much detail here that sometimes it is lost in the overall ambition of the story.

That said though this is a fascinating and engaging look at how an entire community are influenced by a weekly 90 minute game between two teams. While some of the football references may pass non-football fans by, there is enough human observation here to please all – well maybe not Mr Berlusconi.

Written originally for The Public Reviews

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