Enter the Tractor Girls as bandwagon rolls on

Sport as theatre: From floodlights to footlights, the name of the game is play – but will it run and run?
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Certain unscripted events enacted on the stage of an old burlesque hall just off Broadway last week might be considered by some as pure theatre. Impure theatre more like it, as Mike Tyson played out his now infamous lead role as boxing's raging pit-bull. The dividing line between sport and showbiz, particularly where the now-ignoble art is concerned, has never been more obscure. Increasingly, sport is theatre, and dramatists are acknowledging that it is an all-too-accurate reflection of society.

London's West End has been littered recently with plays and musicals with a sporting theme. The final whistle may have been blown on The Beautiful Game, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, but up and running at the Duchess Theatre is Alone It Stands, a dramatisation of the epic rugby union victory of 1978 when Munster beat the All Blacks. It comes complete with crunching tackles and Tysonesque punch-ups in the scrums.

Since the days of David Storey's The Changing Room, ball games have always been an attractive vehicle for translation to the footlights, but never more so than now. Stand by for Manchester United – The Musical to hit theatreland this summer. Russell Watson, the Salford-born tenor, has been booked to play Sir Matt Busby, and Sir Alex Ferguson, who will advise on the lyrics, apparently is playing himself at the première.

Portman Road may not be everyone's Theatre of Dreams, and the latest piece of football-related drama is rather less ambitious and certainly less raucous. This week sees the opening of The Tractor Girls, a play about two female Ipswich fans who travel to a Uefa Cup match in Moscow. It is a co-production between the Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company and the Salisbury Playhouse, where it begins an 11-night run on Wednesday before a provincial tour which ends, aptly, at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich late in March.

It is described as "comedy with a kick" and while neither the author, David Holman, nor the play's director, Jeremy James, are Ipswich supporters, both follow football avidly. According to James, football is a classic vehicle for the theatre. "One of the things about the sport, indeed sport in general, is that it is innately theatrical," he says. "There are great moments the theatre would love to capture, particularly football nights. It is rare to get something as dramatic as Manchester United's European Cup final against Bayern. An extraordinary story. The theatre can't begin to compete with that."

But what have Ipswich done to deserve the theatrical makeover? "The great thing about Ipswich is that they are a very user-friendly club," says James. "A nice club, who were very happy to co-operate, providing replica shirts and all sorts of football props. The trouble with building a play around a club like Man U is that too many people prefer to hate them.

"The original story line was that Ipswich draw a Moscow team, Spartak, go there and win. Remember this was written at the beginning of last year, before the draw was known. Then, blow me, they get Torpedo in the first round. So we changed the script for authenticity."

It helps that all of the five-person cast are sports fans. Emily Wood, 29, who plays one of the two Tractor Girls, Mo, used to sell burgers and hot dogs at Brighton's old Goldstone Ground, and still follows the club. India Fisher, 27, who is her travelling companion Caz, comes from a family of staunch Stoke City supporters.

With the others in the cast they have been to matches at Portman Road to familiarise themselves with the atmosphere, and the East Anglian accent. An Ipswich supporter who lives in Oxford, where the play has been in rehearsal at a local church hall, has been teaching them the chants, including, of course, "Are you Norwich in disguise?"

The play develops from football into a sort of political thriller embracing the Russian mafia. There is a man named Chekhov, who runs a hotel called The Tractor Girls, after the Russian women of that ilk who drove farm machinery through German lines during the war.

Chekhov, played by Clive Holland, turns out to be a bit of an Ipswich fan himself, but the personalities he idolises are the likes of Mick Mills, Arnold Muhren and Bobby Robson. The production itself targets a younger market. "We reckon the audiences will be aged between 15 and 35," says the 40-year-old James. "The advance bookings look healthy. Football is so sexy at the moment. Everyone's into it, and it is remarkable how much in common it has with the theatre. Most plays these days have two 45- to 50-minute acts with an interval, a game of two halves if you like. What the theatre has to do is make itself as entertaining as football."

From John Godber's Up 'n' Under to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, sport has been difficult to represent theatrically, one of the reasons being that you rarely see a ball kicked in anger because it might end up in the upper circle.

Which is why most sporting dramas take place in the dressing room or boardroom. The playwright Willis Hall reckons that is no bad thing. "In some ways what happens there is more entertaining than what happens on the field. You don't need to kick a ball on stage and, anyway, actors are not very good at it, though some like to think they are. It's different for TV, but as Jackie Charlton once said, the trouble with actors is that they don't have footballers' legs." Unless you are Vinnie Jones.

Hall, a passionate sports follower, has only once used it as a subject for a stage play. Walk On, Walk On, about a day in the life of a Third Division club, had a brief run at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1975. "The problem is getting people to go and watch a play about football. The football-going public is not the theatre-going public."

A previous comedy based around an unglamorous club, Watford, Elton John's Glasses, flopped badly in 1998, but the Tractor Girls team remain undaunted. After all, the football play's the thing. Just as long as no one really does break a leg.

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