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1st March 2013

Theatrical hat-trick: football, suffragettes and heroism at the Octagon

Andrew Georgeson heads to Bolton Octagon to review Tull, a dramatisation of racial struggle

I can’t think of a time when I enjoyed any live experience more than Tull.

The blend of the hero’s tale, that of Walter Tull, with the contemporary message of racism, particularly in the modern sporting world, alongside gender equality made for a thoroughly engrossing performance.

The story centre around Walter Tull, performed by Nathan Ives-Moba, for whom football acts as an escapism for what begins as an extremely difficult life. His mother dies of breast cancer early in his life, his father dies soon after than and his aunt puts Walter and his brother in care.

Walter’s brother then get’s adopted and moves to Glasgow, severing their contact with each other for the next 10 years, leaving him by himself with the game he loves.

The beauty of the play is its simplicity. There are no props or costumes, and in fact many of the actors had to perform more than one role, sometimes even extremely conflicting roles. Almost as if it were Epic Theatre, the audience were only able to focus on the story and internal struggles that the characters themselves faced.

Indeed, the times media was used, it was used to wonderful effect. There were several times throughout the production when a football match had to be created. With the movement shown you would think that they had the ball at their feet. The accompanying soundtrack also created cheers of jubilant fans, timed with a strike at goal.

The characters of the play too portrayed the striking message that the performance had to convey. Ives-Moba, playing the lead role, as a young actor making his professional debut carried the perfect mix of youthful exuberance and naivety that a young Tull possessed.

His character was extremely well complimented by Fiona Hampton who played a key founder in the Suffragette movement as well as Tull’s fiancée, Emmeline Pankhurst, who herself has an idealized aspiration of equality and suffered from as much oppression and abuse as Walter did.

These characters were well juxtaposed with the experience of John Branwell, whose most influential role out the many he played was that of Herbert Chapman, regarded as one of the most successful football managers of the twentieth century, as well as being manager of Northampton town when Tull was transferred there from Tottenham Hotspur.

Kieran Hill also playing the role of Rev. Dr. Stephenson, founder of the modern day charity Action for Children, was a guide for Tull throughout his life from his time at the orphanage to his time in the army.

The play discussed a number of contemporary issues, within the context of the frivolous nature of war. The racist language used throughout the play towards Tull delivers the shocking effect that the play intends.

Tull receives racism in every respect of his life, from the racial abuse direct at him at his time at Spurs, blaming his for racial disunity. Then again during his time in the army, despite being noted as an inspiration to his comrades, was nearly refused promotion to 2nd Lieutenant because he was not of ‘pure European descent.’

Similarly in the case of Emmeline who was not only faced with troubles of obtaining votes for women, but was also adamantly against the war which her fiancée went to fight in, deeming it the battle of capitalism fought via the poor proletariat.

Unfortunately, Tull did not survive the war, killed in 1918 at the second battle of the Somme. The last scene of his death is the same scene that opened the play before going back through his life.

However, at the end there is a soliloquy by the manager who tells the story of how a young black boy affected his life, and the dreams of equality in football in the future. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

Five stars out of five

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