THEATRE / Putting its best feet forward: Jeffrey Wainwright on a celebration of Stanley Matthews

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The Independent Culture
BBC 1's Fantasy Football League runs an item called 'Old Football Was Rubbish'. Well, in the 1960s Stoke City's Victoria Ground used to see any number of visiting Skinners and Baddiels dive in against a slow-stepping gentleman in his late forties, only to find that they might as well have had a six-pack tied to each ankle. As the cast list for Rony Robinson's account of his life has it, there's no such thing as an old Stanley Matthews, only an older one.

It is a pity this show, at the New Vic, Newcastle under Lyme, does not dwell longer on this late phase of Matthews' career. Youthful athletic brilliance we can see all the time, but an insight into such psychological sway as Matthews then sustained is rarer. The grounding for that is laid, however, in two scenes wittily delineating the nature of Matthews' art.

In the first, a very funny duel between the 10-year-old Matthews and a schoolmaster (Richard Hague - excellent throughout), we see the essential confidence and exposure to potential humiliation of Matthews' method as he taps the ball between his feet, in Arthur Hopcraft's definitive description, 'like butter being chopped up by a two-pat grocer'.

In the second, after his first international failure, he meets his formidable father (Lennox Greaves), a confrontation taut with the struggle for self-confidence. As Young Stan, Karl Woolley is, forgivably, a touch one-footed, but his performance is infectiously attractive.

Come on Stan] is not, however, entirely a football play. Robinson begins with his hero out of his element. It is 1967, and Matthews (now a manager) has brought Port Vale on a tour to Prague. Here he meets Mila (Liz Brailsford), eventually his second wife, and the story of their tortuous courtship - beset by the 1969 Russian invasion and the difficulties of extricating himself from his 35-year marriage - is told alongside episodes of the football career.

Not surprisingly, the script moves rather gingerly around the more sensitive areas. Ken Farrington, who, as the Older Stan, also narrates, gives him a solemn, wistful air which corresponds to his inscrutability on the pitch. The unanswered fascination is why a figure so apparently composed and wary, for whom Blackpool was once exotic, threw himself into such an apparently quixotic romance. But, with its subject still alive, it's hardly surprising if this docu-drama fails to plumb the depths of such a question.

Even if a couple of narrative devices - the news vendor and cloth- capped fans' chorus - wear thin, exuberance and invention is plentifully apparent in Rob Swain's direction. The matches themselves are cleverly mimed, complete with video rewind, and the first-night audience joyously received both the show and the maestro of happy endings himself. Happy, that is, except that Stoke have again to get back to the top flight. I, for one, can't wait for the sequel.

To 25 June. Box office: 0782 717962

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