It's much more than a game

Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads looks at race, violence and our national obsession
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The Independent Culture

"Someone once told me don't write from your head, write from your heart," says the play- wright Roy Williams. He's followed the advice. Born in London in 1968, Williams is an avid Queens Park Rangers fan, and his Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads tackles football, race and national identity.

His play is set in a pub in London during the England versus Germany World Cup qualifier in October 2000. "The supporters are predominantly white, a few black," says Williams, who was loosely inspired by the leery football fans he witnessed in a pub in Birmingham. "As England are losing 1-0, it becomes less about football and more about nationalism."

Sing Yer Heart Out was first seen as an experimental work in the National's 2002 Transformation season, then directed by Simon Usher. For this staging the play is directed by Paul Miller, whose other work includes Honeymoon Suite at the Royal Court, Fragile Land at the Hampstead Theatre and Mean Tears, Mr England and Accomplices at the Sheffield Crucible. The cast includes Ashley Walters of So Solid Crew. He plays Barry, the younger of two brothers and an amateur footballer who, to begin with, is impervious to issues of racism. Steve John Shepherd, who played Joe in the TV series This Life, plays Lee, a football supporter in the pub.

"When football fans hit the front pages with the fighting in Belgium during Euro 2000, it made me sad," says Williams, who wanted to explore what was going through their minds. "That their behaviour showed how proud they were to be Eng-lish made absolutely no sense to me. Some of them just can't get enough of kicking people's heads in, but it is also a lack of self-worth. The England they feel they love is falling apart in front of their eyes. They are still holding on to the past and they can't let go."

His first professional play, 1996's The No-Boys Cricket Club - about his mother, who moved from Jamaica to Britain in the Fifties - was based on the the degree play he wrote while studying at the Rose Bruford drama school in Kent. But it wasn't until Lift Off at the Ambassadors in 1999 - about two teenagers, one black and one white, growing up in the inner-city - that he first began developing his themes of racial tensions and cultural identity in contemporary Britain. Clubland, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (for which he won the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright Award, in 2001), looked at a group of mixed-race friends in their thirties, and focused on racial stereotyping. Last year's Fallout, was inspired by the death of the 10-year-old schoolboy Damilola Taylor.

"It takes me about a year to write a play," says Williams, who is turning Fallout into a feature film. "I begin writing at 6am - and I don't stop for eight hours." What is the secret of a good play? "I am giving the audience a slice of something they have not seen before," he says.

'Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads', Cottesloe/National Theatre, London (020-7452 3000) 30 April to 26 June