Thursday 4 October 2018

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual

Curve, Leicester

3rd October, 2018

I hate skinheads, but it’s clear they’re part of something.

What am I part of?

There’s been a recent trend of regional theatres looking closer to home to stage their cities’ stories: Songs from the Seven Hills in Sheffield, We’ll Live and Die in these Towns in Coventry, Shebeen in Nottingham. Now, Curve has adapted former Baby Squad firm member Riaz Khan’s memoirs about his time as a 1980s football hooligan. The result is an unsentimental, highly charged, immersive production that is fearlessly performed by Jay Varsani and Hareet Deol. And although its focus is a niche and troubled bit of Leicester history, Khan and director Nikolai Foster emphasise themes regarding race, religion, class and identity in Riaz’s story which resonate on a national (and international) scale.

Grace Smart has transformed the studio space into the Filbert Street terraces, complete with graffiti tags, De Montfort Hall posters, and football flags, our protagonists pitched (no pun intended) between the onlookers. The story begins in 1987, with Riaz preparing for the Baby Squad’s biggest brawl yet; encamped on the banks of New Walk he waits for his rival firm to depart the train station. How did he get here? The next two hours traverse Riaz’s upbringing, his ancestral roots, and his gradual intoxication with the camaraderie and violence of gang culture.

One of Memoirs’ major successes is that Khan (and adaptor, Dougal Irvine) never falls into hackneyed traps of sentimentality or, adversely, patronising didactism. The piece is contextually solid; we understand and even empathise with the allure of the Baby Squad and the football casual way of life through Riaz’s perspective as the son of Pakistani immigrants. Neo-Nazi, Enoch Powell-inspired bigotry is encountered everywhere – from the bus, to the shopping centre, and even primary school playgrounds and Humanities debate classes – meaning Riaz doesn’t feel welcome in his hometown. But we also hear how he doesn’t fully ‘belong’ at home. He and his brother can’t share their mum’s enthusiasm for watching three hour long Bollywood movies on a Sunday with the gas fire on full. Nor can they understand their dad’s appreciation of lazy and xenophobic 70s sitcoms such as Mind Your Language. This sense of displacement is extended to the motherland, as a trip to Pakistan leaves Riaz and Suf overwhelmed and entirely disconnected with their family’s social and cultural heritage. So when Riaz encounters the stylish, multi-cultural Baby Squad he sees an opportunity for integration by joining the co-founders of a new, ultra-contemporary subculture.

Irvine’s adaptation is thoughtful and never overshadows Khan’s story. The structure of the piece echoes epic theatre techniques by having Riaz and Suf address the audience directly and even discuss how they’re going to play certain scenes. This outline allows for some interesting language play, as Irvine strikingly assimilates language with violence. Early on in the play Riaz and Suf step away from the narrative to debate the appropriation and re-appropriation of offensive language. Language and race is a hot topic of late, and Khan and Irvine take a refreshingly post-modern approach by acknowledging the fact that in re-appropriating the language of the oppressor Riaz and Suf are themselves degrading and oppressing their ‘souls’. From then on, we hear only the opening syllables of slurs that are scratched out by a screech of chalk, the brothers visually marking each assault. The violence of these actions cuts deep, creating near-physical reactions from the audience each and every time. There is no room for complacency where racism is concerned, and the play is all the more shocking and perceptive for it.

As Riaz ingrains himself further into the football casual culture we see his world paradoxically expand and narrow. He’s found his place, but is confined within it. Life now boils down to the next high, the next game, the next fight, the next must-have fashion (from golfing sportswear, to designer brands and questionable paisley shirts, to hip-hop and acid house – ironically a football casual would never be caught wearing their team’s strip). Unemployed or stuck in menial jobs, nothing else matters except loyalty to the firm. Smart’s design comes into its own here, the overhead stadia lighting rig closes in on Riaz as he delves further into violence.

It takes a lot to pull of an immersive show, but I imagine even more so when there are only two actors. Varsani (as Riaz) and Deol (as Riaz’s brother, Suf) have no problem filling the stage as they switch between playing dozens of characters with chameleonic ease; from their parents and ancestors, to Enoch Powell and a camp Skegness skinhead. Varsani and Deol bask in the comedy (and parts are very, very funny), playfully dart in and around the audience, and bring a solemn sobriety to the darker aspects of the narrative while avoiding what in other hands could appear cloyingly earnest. These charismatic young actors are definitely ones to watch.

One of the fascinations about this production, heightened by Foster’s choice of a traverse stage, is being able to see and hear others’ reactions. Some reacted in recognition to familiar Leicestershire place names (Upperton Road, the Haymarket, Gallowtree Gate, Eyres Monsell); others were perhaps nostalgic about the terraces of the old Filbert Street ground (now replaced by the nearby King Power Stadium). Above all of that, however, was the unique experience of having the play’s protagonist sat in the audience. Khan, along with his family and friends sat nearby, was enthralled watching his experiences relived in front of him. At the end, he walks onstage, speaking to us and his younger self in a moment touching catharsis.

Throughout the play, Riaz asks ‘Who am I?’. It’s a question Leicester has had to ask itself over the years, with sometimes uneasy answers. Khan’s time in the Baby Squad precedes my birth and yet it still resonates with this changing and vibrant city. Thirty years on, Brucciani’s is still here and the clock tower remains a beacon of the city. But it’s also changed considerably in the last decade, with the monopolising of the king in the car park, the LCFC murals dotted about town, and indeed the opening of Curve itself. In its tenth year, Curve’s two biggest productions have been a new musical that has attracted audiences in their droves up and down the country, and this very local play about a very specific and pertinent part of Leicester’s lifeblood. These are the highlights of a richly diverse programme made for its city. And in Memoirs, they’ve made a pulsating bit of theatre which is simultaneously sensitively staged with stimulating ambivalence, while remaining jubilant about the making of a man and a city.

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual plays at Curve, Leicester until 6th October.

This post was corrected on 4th October - the traverse stage was mislabelled as a promenade stage.

Hareet Deol (Suf) and Jay Varsani (Riaz) -Photography by Ellie Kurttz

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