It is seldom that we discuss the inherent inequalities in our nation’s most beloved sport. Perhaps because of the very fact football is so loved safeguards it from scrutiny. It is only recently that conversation has been sparked about racism in football, and there is yet to be a significant discussion of its misogyny. Though many footballers have to overcome obstacles of poverty or a lack of support, the hurdles which Female players have to surmount, as Offside crucially shows us, are twice as high as those of their male counterparts. Through brilliant and polished overlapping storytelling, the piece takes us through three different eras and the story of four women in their struggle to play the game they love.

A vital history lesson and an empowering, holistic poem, Offside should be seen by every Brit.

Each story mirrors the other while retaining its own unique fascination. From the outset it is established that women’s very presence in a game that, in many ways, represents cultural patriarchy, is unbreakably connected to the political struggle for Women’s rights. Emma Clark, a now forgotten legendary figure whose parents escaped slavery, is, in 1892, the UK’s first Black female footballer, at a time when she didn’t even have the vote. Lily Parr bravely rails against the ban enforced on women’s football by the FA in 1921 despite the sport’s enduring popularity and economic importance for post-war Britain. Even in present-day England we have new, insidious forms of these limitations; Mickey and Keeley, two fictional characters striving to make the national team, find themselves toiling through a labyrinth of restrictive pressures. Lad’s mags portray them as sexual objects, Ladies’ mags ask them inane questions about their bodies and relationships rather than their game and the stakes are higher if they fail. Throughout their careers they are under constant, overwhelming demands to prove themselves. The piece also tackles the domestic violence and microaggressions that oppress women daily.

Offside connects both the audience and its present-day protagonists with the long, proud history of Women’s football serially buried under the gargantuan weight of the men’s game. Mickey and Keeley are empowered by their sporting heroines Lily and Emma, remembering them in times of vulnerability. Each narrative thread blends seamlessly together in the play’s structure, producing a unified voice, a strong connection between each character, eliciting a chain of empowerment whose message is clear: Women have an important capacity to empower each other. This renders moments of conflict, for example an altercation in a changing room between Mickey and Keeley, all the more jarring.

Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher portray both their characters and their heroines with an incredible sensitivity to the distinctions and similarities between each woman. The audience leave caring deeply about each individual character, and the chemistry between Mickey and Keeley is heartwarming. Daphne Kouma’s versatility is awe-inspiring, portraying 7 characters with fluid precision. Caroline Bryant’s direction evokes with vigour the immediacy and explosive energy of football through acute, stylised movement. The show’s staging, with two large lockers containing each of the women’s possessions, powerfully symbolises the claustrophobic pressures imposed on each character, the secrets they have to keep locked away, the many disguises they need, and the fact that they are giving it everything they havel to achieve dreams.

The sheer undeniable beauty of the piece however comes from the honest, brutal, intimate, visceral poetry that is the script from spoken-word visionaries Hollie Mcnish and Sabrina Mahfouz. Their writing simultaneously pours out in a complex web the inner workings of the women’s minds on an extremely personal level, from their connection to their game to their family lives, and unflinchingly flips poisonous stereotypes on their head.

An almost hypnotically surreal, hard-hitting sequence of lyrical monologues responds to the claims in the 1920s that women’s bodies were ‘unfit’ for football. With a brutal irony, Mcnish and Mahfouz respond with an exposition of the hardships of the domestic sphere and its tasks to which women were and are shackled to; authorities would never say that women were untailored for housework, cooking, child-rearing, cleaning, chores, and the endless list of further demands, which are tantamount to, if not more difficult that, the life of a sportsman. A vital history lesson and an empowering, holistic poem, Offside should be seen by every Brit.

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The Blurb

It is 1892. It is 1921. It is 2017. Four women from across the centuries live, breathe and play football. Whilst each of them face very different obstacles, the possibility that the beautiful game will change their futures – and the world – is tantalizingly close. Written by leading spoken word artists Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, Offside comes to the Pleasance after a hit UK tour in the spring. ‘A tremendous three-hander’ (The Scotsman), grab a ticket to be on the touchline of the game of a lifetime!