On the day after the first ever female chair of the Football Association was announced this witty and powerful piece about the pioneers of the women’s game being banned by a bunch of misogynists in a committee room couldn’t be more pertinent.
These footballing underdogs are classic Mikron Theatre territory as a fictional Huddersfield factory girl and a posh teacher come together under the watchful eye of even posher Miss Waller to form Atalanta Ladies raising money for starving wondered soldiers in the years after the war to end all wars. My only criticism is that Mikron often play posh characters off against the working class, and that idea has run its course.
Bit of context here for non-footie fans as in 1921 Preston’s Dick Kerr’s Ladies played in front of 51000 at a Boxing Day game at Goodison Park raising the modern equivalent of £600.000 for the wounded. And Atalanta’s home debut against Dick Kerr attracted 15000 fans as they went down four nowt.
So you may be wondering why you’ve never heard of Atlanta, but as Amanda Whittington’s funny and fast moving script shows women were banned by the FA from playing on their grounds, so the growing women’s game was halted in its tracks.
Whittington herself was forced out of the game as a kid due to the same prejudices that blighted the aspirations of the Huddersfield players, and they say revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but this tale of tough women fighting their corner is much more than getting her own back. It is a potted social history of post World World War One Britain, and an examination of why it took the best part of 50 years for the women’s game to flourish once again.
There is always something stirring watching four actors, who also play instruments, pitch up in offbeat venues, often outdoors, with virtually no props and playing multiple roles on a stage that is all but non-existent. It is also challenging for the sold-out audience who are forced to use their imagination, and credit to director Marianne McNamara for avoiding the awful slow motion action movements that all too often blight football plays. There are also not many companies that have to battle a particularly noisy bird circling the nearby Minister, or a bunch of rowdy revellers joining in with one of the songs.
Rachel Benson is wonderfully confused as downtrodden Annie who tries to write down the offside rule as she hides a guilty secret but finishes up as a nifty left winger. Elizabeth Robin is equally good as the forthright former munitions’ worker Ethel, who truly becomes herself with the ball at her feet. Her joy at being told by a ghostly Dick Kerr great Lilly Parr that there’s now a women’s world cup, including England’s Lionesses, brought a tear to this lifelong football fan’s eye.
The men play a bewildering series of supporting roles with a wonderfully comic turn by Thomas Cotran as Miss Waller, and he sings well too. James McLean’s plummy football commentator Motty Johnson is a hoot before doing yet another costume for old school groundsman Mr Blake, who finally comes round to the women’s game.
On one level you can’t help but mourn for generations of women denied the chance to pursue their dreams, but Atalanta Forever is actually a living testament to a group of determined women who for a few glorious months did get to play the greatest game of all.
Thanks to Whittington and four very game actors we understand how today’s women professionals walk in the studmarks of those pioneering giants.
Atalanta Forever is touring until September 19th. To book visit http://mikron.org.uk
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 9th June 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★