Harold Brighouse's The Game: Pampered stars, bankrupt clubs – a tale of football in the 1920s

Playwright Harold Brighouse's prescient northern comedy, The Game, was buried after snobbish reviews in the press. Now it's being restaged – and it's more timely than ever

The club is on the brink of financial ruin and its pampered star player is having girlfriend problems. Fans are fretful as the chairman considers a controversial plan to bring in much-needed cash to balance the books.

This is not an everyday tale from the Premier League, but the plot of an obscure play by one of prewar northern England's most respected but neglected playwrights, now due to be performed for the first time in almost a century.

The decision to revive The Game, Harold Brighouse's northern comedy about love, honour, class and football, is set to rekindle interest in a playwright whose work was considered ground-breaking, but whose influence failed to travel south. This was in part due to the "snobbishness" of London reviewers, who thought sport was not a suitable subject for theatre.

The revival of the play, almost 100 years after it was first staged, suggests such prejudices no longer hold true, say Brighouse's fans. They believe The Game is more relevant than ever.

The success of films, dramas and novels, from Gregory's Girl to Bend It Like Beckham and Fever Pitch, underlines their argument. Best known for Hobson's Choice, Brighouse (1882-1958), was a member of the "Manchester School" of playwrights. From 1913 to 1949, he was a contributor to the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian).

But it was Brighouse's role as a champion of provincial theatre that made him popular around Manchester.

Despite his profile in northern England, where his work was acclaimed for its bleak portrayal of the working class, laced through with humour and wit, The Game was performed only on a handful of occasions after it was first put on at the Playhouse in Liverpool in 1914.

A review in the Times, when the play came to London in 1920, was scathing, dismissing its subject as of "no interest". Brighouse himself was anguished about the perception of northern theatre.

"The play suffered from the snobbishness of London reviewers and then it just got buried," said Barrie Rutter, artistic director of the Northern Broadsides theatre company – which is staging The Game's revival at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax on 16 September before it goes on national tour until late November.

Rutter acknowledged that such prejudices could be understandable considering that, until relatively recently, there had not been many successful dramas centred on the world of sport. This Sporting Life, a film about a rugby league player, starring Richard Harris and based on David Storey's 1960 novel, is a notable exception, he suggested.

"Snobbishness towards mixing sport and theatre is much more relaxed now," he insisted. "People are going to think we've put lines in, it's so prescient about what's happening in today's game."

The play, with a cast including Wendi Peters – best known as the loud-mouthed Cilla Battersby-Brown in Coronation Street – is centred on the fictitious Blackton Rovers, a club in dire need of money. Its owner, Austin Whitworth, sells his star centre-forward – local football hero Jack Metherell – to a rival club on the eve of a crucial match that could see Rovers relegated.

Metherell then pressures Whitworth to throw the match, forcing him to choose between professional honour and loyalty to his old club. To complicate things Whitworth's daughter, Elsie, and Jack are in love – or so they think. But Jack still lives at home, firmly tied to his mother's apron strings.

Rutter said that the play came straight from the "halcyon days" of professional football, when players were stalwarts of their communities – although its themes are also contemporary. "The accompanying human dramas are as fresh today as they were in 1913: the difference is that footballers were working-class heroes who lived with their parents and travelled to the match on the corporation bus, unlike many of today's professional players."

The play's obscurity was so complete that the only place Rutter could obtain a copy was at a Canadian university.

Rutter's desire to revive it was spawned by a 2007 performance of Hobson's Choice at Chichester Festival Theatre, which was reviewed by the Guardian's critic, Michael Billington.

He concluded his review by expressing the wish that someone would resurrect "one of Brighouse's 14 other full-length plays, or even a shorter piece such as The Game, in which a brilliant footballer is revealed to be under his mother's thumb. That really might cause a stir in our age of pampered, dribbling prima donnas."

Rutter said the England team's recent travails had given the play a new piquancy. "Today's players are so clearly pampered prima donnas that I think the script has been rendered even more scathing by what happened at the World Cup."

Contributors

Jamie Doward and Henry Dearlove

The GuardianTramp

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