Photo: Nobby Clark.
Fifty years after its premiere, Zigger Zagger has been revived in a new production by the National Youth Theatre at Wilton’s Music Hall, an evocative venue for a historic text. Those of us around at the time remember the excitement generated by the original production, which was itself revived regularly in the 1970s and into the 1980s. It was an edgy, demanding piece then, angry and rooted in the lives of the young people portrayed. When the original cast sang “God Save our Gracious Team” there was outrage among some audience members, but the moment passes without concern now.
In 2017 we live in a greatly changed world, both in regard to the lives of young people and indeed football itself. The play, therefore, is very much a period piece: a strange other world where friendly police officers share the terraces, footballers mix with the fans, and skinheads are only slightly threatening. There are some energetic brawls and a few minor run-ins with the law, but no major injury, bottles that are thrown are (anachronistically) plastic and there are plenty of jobs available, even for those with no qualifications.
Most of all, and most glaringly obvious with this very diverse cast, this is football without a trace of racism. A different world then, and one that must have seemed alien to many of the cast: the world of their grandparents in fact. Under the direction of Juliet Knight, however, they give a remarkably energetic and committed account of the play, with the crowd chants still as effective as they ever were.
One of the defining features of the original production was the bank of terraces facing the audience, and Wilton’s presents some challenges with its shallow two-level stage. Designer James Button deals with this by providing a corrugated iron wall with multiple exits and topped by a playing area which effectively joins the crowd there with those below. It is an elegant solution to a difficult challenge.
Movement (David Grewcock) is also a vital component of the piece, with the crowd responding as one in response to action on the field; as with the original, it is often during the excitement of the crowd scenes that the play is at its most effective. The disciplined and hard-working company rise as one and respond en masse, and cope well with the various cameos as the central figure leaves school – at 15, since this play takes place just before the leaving age was raised to 16.
Among the small part players who caught the eye were William Barnett as a sleazy newsagent and Sophie Guiver, who nicely showed the commitment but ineffectiveness of the youth club leader. In one of the more familiar scenes, Adam Smart took a different and engaging approach to the Careers Officer, rather than playing him as the dour Northener usually portrayed.
Zigger’s gang, led by an effective Teddy Robson in the title role, not only made a convincing band of small-time skinheads but also had the hair to match: unlike many of the cast who wore something approaching 1970s costume but with resolutely 21st century haircuts. More acting opportunities were given to those playing the central figure’s family, with Ebe Bamgboye particularly good as the exasperated Les, unable to interest Harry in interests outside football. As Harry’s mother, Ciara Wright gave a full-blooded account of a part that could easily slide into stereotype.
The central role, Harry Philton, is a large one and the play is essentially his story. Josh Barrow showed us the arc of this character, adding much more to the role than is possibly in the text. This was a mature, intelligent and impressive performance.
An excellent account of a play from the past then, celebrating the NYT’s commitment to new writing. Perhaps now they will commission a football play for the 21st century, dealing with those aspects of the not always so beautiful game which will be familiar to young people today.