OK, North is appearing in a play entitled Fever Pitch, and OK, I wrote the autobiographical book on which the play is based, which means that, effectively, North is playing me. But even so, his best lines (frankly speaking, the ones I wrote) contain enough truth, beauty, wit and resonance to startle not just the author, but probably the rest of his immediate family as well. On the face of it, a book which takes the form of match reports, and covers a 25-year period in the dismal history of Arsenal Football Club, would not appear to be best suited to a one-man stage play. But Brighton Theatre Events' ingenious adaptation spots theatricality where I could see none - in fact, I wish I'd been sent a script of the play before I wrote the book.
The show is performed against a tear-jerking backdrop of Arsenal's Holy Trinity - George Graham, Liam Brady and Charlie George. Encounters with psychoanalysts, paranoid football dreams, embarrassing encounters at Reading, pacts with the Devil to ensure Cup Final victories and laughable wannabe hooligan episodes have been magically transformed into show-stopping set- pieces. Indeed, North's slow-motion transformation into a 15-year-old yob is analysed, Match of the Day-style, by a tape-recorded Desmond Lynam - the real Desmond Lynam. Well, that's nice, isn't it? I mean, he wasn't falling over himself to offer help when the book came out, was he?
It is a strange business, watching an adaptation of one's own autobiography, and I spent much of the first 45 minutes bathed in sweat. Why is everyone laughing? What's funny about that? Oi, that's my mum you're impersonating there] Show some respect] Early on, North asks the audience to put their hands up if they, like his tragic hero, have ever had a spell on the analyst's couch: only one punter responded, and it wasn't me. I'm not owning up, I thought. I'll let some other poor sap draw attention to himself. Only later did it occur to me that it was too late, that any further confession was superfluous. Anyway, waving at stage portrayals of oneself is probably not the done, or even the sane, thing.
I had not expected Stephen North and his producer, Paul Hodson, to tackle Hillsborough and Heysel on stage, and it is to their credit that they do so in a way that works. It is easy enough to write about football's twin tragedies in a book; you have time and space to switch moods, and you do not have to cope with a minimal cast, or an audience that has previously been worked mostly for laughs. North (a passionate Brighton and Hove Albion fan) manages the jump from low comedy to genuine horror with admirable sang-froid. Occasionally, the clutter and chronology of the book weighs the play down a little, and the material used to link the set-pieces seems peculiarly specific. And, just in case any Arsenal goalkeepers are intending to visit the Assembly Rooms over the next couple of weeks, I feel compelled to point out that the Seaman pun isn't one of mine: I would never have cracked a joke like that, David (although if I had known that it got laughs as big as that I would have been sorely tempted).
These minor flaws are easily overlooked, however. You leave the theatre with the realisation that the play's one part is likely to replace Hamlet as the most coveted role in British theatre. Certainly, it is difficult to think of another play which features a hero as rounded, complex, or magnetic as the hero of Fever Pitch. If I were Stephen North, I'd take the author out for a very large drink.
At the Assembly Rooms (venue 3), George St (031-226 2428). 2pm. To 3 Sept
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