Rebel with applause: New episode in football as drama

Roy Keane's life has often blended tragedy and farce, a mixture reflected in a musical which opened in the UK last night. Chris Maume talked to the 'Father Ted' creator who helped write it about football and footlights
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For those who may have been in the Big Brother house during the last World Cup, Roy Keane had a bit of a falling-out with the Republic of Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy. Keane took one look at the training camp in Saipan and went on the rampage. After the mother of all foul-mouthed rows he was sent back to his Cheshire pile, while at home a nation was torn apart. Tragedy and farce collided, and now they meet head on in a musical.

"I'm a big football fan, but the whole thing was ludicrous," says Arthur Matthews, co-writer of I, Keano, which opened in Manchester last night. "People in Ireland took it terribly seriously, people with no interest in football. It was civil war - 90-year-old women were ringing radio phone-ins. Everyone was vehemently pro or anti."

And which was he? "When we were writing the thing we decided not to say," the co-writer of Father Ted laughs. "But I think I can say now that I thought he should have stuck around."

Inspired by the success of Jerry Springer: The Opera, on the basis that if you can make a musical out of that then anything's possible, Matthews wrote I, Keano - poster line: "He came, he saw, he went home" - with Michael Nugent (plus songs by the U2 impersonator Paul Woodfull). The saga of Saipan is re-enacted in the Roman empire, as a bumbling legion led by General Macartacus is sent to a distant island to prepare for battle. The mercurial warrior Keano arrives to find a ropy battleground, missing weapons and a rabble of an army.

He makes an enemy of everybody, especially Macartacus and the drunken Ridiculus, the head of the Federation - everybody, that is, except for Fergi the Hairdryer God, who, oddly for a Roman deity, speaks with a Glaswegian accent as broad as the Tiber and the Clyde. There's been some tinkering for English audiences: some of the Irish in-jokes have been taken out, while Fergi's part has been expanded.

Quinnus the appeaser, Duffus and Dunphia - Eamon Dunphy portrayed as a wood nymph - all make appearances, and it's been described by various critics as a cross between: Up Pompeii, Father Ted and Spitting Image; Up Pompeii, I Claudius and South Pacific; and Up Pompeii, Gladiator and Thoroughly Modern Millie (that's definitely Frankie Howerd as Keano, then). With sold-out runs in Dublin and Cork, it's been seen by more people than will eventually fit into Wembley.

"It's struck a chord over here," Matthews says. "People are up for it - and they've been coming along in the right spirit. At the beginning we did get football crowds, with chanting and abuse - of McCarthy."

Part of the success is down the whole Keane package. "He's got huge charisma. He's a leader, and he's a rebel as well, which always goes down very well in Ireland." Matthews says. "He's from Cork, which is traditionally the rebel county. Plus he's a good country lad. He ticks all those boxes."

I, Keano isn't the first piece of theatre to owe its existence to the great man. He also inspired the playwright Colin Teevan, whose monologue The Keaniadwas performed on Radio 3's The Verb last year. He went on to fuse that with his version of The Bacchai that was playing at the National Theatre and came up with the recent Missing Persons: Four Tragedies and Roy Keane at London's Trafalgar Studios in which Greg Hicks portrayed the footballer as Achilles sulking in his tent while his comrades fight on.

The recent Keane-based works fit into a long, but not particularly abundant tradition of sports being portrayed on stage. In one sense this might seem odd. Sport, above all, is a narrative - we're dying to know what happens next, how the story ends - and great drama depends on conflict and resolution. Yet few sporting themes have made to the stage (I've come across 17 shows based on football). Perhaps it's the difficulty of representing what happens on the field of play realistically.

But there are other ways. The action can be highly stylised, as in last year's brilliantly staged The 1966 World Cup at London's Battersea Arts Centre. Or else it can be about the fans, like Arthur Smith's An Evening With Gary Lineker, which used the Italia 90 semi-final against Germany to explore troubled relationships, or Peter Terson's Zigger Zagger about young hooligans.

Or the game can be used as a vehicle to explore a specific issue - such as racism in Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads a couple of years ago, or homophobia in Gaffer!, a one-man show from 2004. Like Teevan and his Keaniad, though, Matthews went back to the very roots of drama.

"The Keane affair just seemed to fit the classic Greek tragedy, one man's pride being the cause of his downfall." he says. "And with Macartacus there are elements of King Lear as well, so when you grafted it on to a classical sort of narrative it seemed to work well.

"Football is epic and requires moral courage. I watch matches and before the kick-off I'm a nervous wreck and I don't know how footballers do it. My theory has always been that footballers have no imagination." Keane, who presumably does, approves. "He came to see the play," Matthews says, "and he came round to meet the cast, which I think was very noble and gracious." In fact the actor playing Quinnus literally bumped into him backstage.

"Jesus!" he said. "Quinnus," Keane calmly replied.

In Manchester, he will be played by Denis Foley, another Cork man. He was firmly in the Keane camp. "I know absolutely nothing about football," he says. "But I was a staunch Keane follower. He was dead right."Research for his role, Foley says, "wasn't easy because he's not a media whore. But I sat down and watched some interviews, and I read his biography. It opened my eyes. He's a staunch professional."

The staunch pro took the old guard on like a gladiator and lived to see himself reborn as a dramatic hero (of sorts). As I, Keano continues its bawdy, triumphant progress, what's next? The Special One as Alexander the Great?

'I, Keano' is at The Lowry, Salford Quays, until Saturday 11 March

Theatre of dreams... and nightmares

AN EVENING WITH GARY LINEKER The stand-up comedian Arthur Smith hit pay dirt in the early 1990s with this look at the battle of the sexes during the England v West Germany semi-final in the 1990 World Cup.

ZIGGER ZAGGER In the 1960s, the role of young men in society was being dramatically transformed, and Peter Terson perfectly captured the zeitgeist with his account of young hooligans.

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL Had it all - the drugs, the whores, even the ghost of Che Guevara. Went down a storm in Buenos Aires.

THEATRE OF DREAMS Thankfully, this never got past the open workshop stage, when Russell Watson sang the part of Matt Busby and the ghosts of the Munich dead came back for the '68 European Cup final.

ELTON JOHN'S GLASSES The 1984 FA Cup final seen through the eyes of agoraphobic Watford fans. This paper described it as "lumbering". Played the West End in 1998, but not for very long.

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME Ben Elton teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber for this footballing tale of The Troubles. Critically savaged, it closed with big losses. Beautiful game, terrible show.