Darwen is probably not the most well-known town in England, but it holds a very special place in the history of football. It’s story is too good not to be told and has been taken up by co-writers/artistic directors of The Long Lane Theatre Company in The Giant Killers, at Upstairs At The Gatehouse.
A joy to see the beautiful game played as a beautiful play.
It’s hard to imagine that in the game’s early days it was the preserve of the rich and well-to-do and dominated by southern teams. Darwen FC was formed in 1870. In 1879 it became the first northern team to reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup. They were also the first team ever to sign professional players, when they invited Fergie Suter and James Love from Partick FC to join them in what was to become an epic battle against against the Old Etonians. This was not just a matter of north v south; it was class warfare on a grand scale. The working class poor were pitched against the ranks of privilege and inherited wealth who not surprisingly also made up the rules to their advantage. It took three matches to achieve a final result and another memorable fixture to finally place the team on the map.
The town, which is about twenty miles north of Manchester, was awarded its coat of arms during this period. Translated, it’s Latin motto reads “Nothing without labour"; an apt expression for its achievements on the field and as a town that fought to survive the cotton famine and the devastation of its dependent manufacturing base. It probably sums as well up all the hard work it’s taken to put on this play and mount a U.K. tour. The versatile set by Justin Williams, which looks very easy to pack away and transport, deserves praise here for its flexibility and subtle creation of various scenes. It’s well-managed by the cast and incorporated into the action by director Andrew Loudon.
Loudon has also taken the intense, passionate script and given it the pace and energy it requires, while his cast of four fully play it out. Eve Pearson-Wright displays the strength and fighting spirit of Lucy Kirkham, a young, forthright lass who is not to be messed with. She ultimately gives way to the advances of Robert “Bobby” Kirkham, not for the first time, as he’s played by her real-life husband Andrew Pearson-Wright. He portrays a slightly shy but nevertheless determined young man who grows in strength and confidence as he finds success in both love and football. They have their own family story which provides some sensitive breaks from the bigger social issues and demands of the game. Fighting for justice and the team, Kyle Rowe, in his professional debut, mounts a powerful performance as Billy Walsh, in a mixture of reason and rage both on and off the pitch that epitomises the rise of the working classes. On the other side of the social spectrum Nicholas Shaw doubles up as James Ashton and Lord Kinnaird, portraying the conflicts experienced by the former as the boy from a manufacturing family sent to a public school and the aristocratic superiority of the latter.
The Giant Killers is an action-packed production with some well-choreographed on-field scenes in a play whose appeal extends well beyond the interests of football aficionados. There’s probably room for further development of the socio-industrial aspects of the period and the historical issues of the day, although these are by no means ignored. Overall, it’s a great result, a victory and a joy to see the beautiful game played as a beautiful play. Absque Labore Nihil.