Review: Total Football @ The Barbican

Written for Exeunt Magazine

I’ve been kicking this show around in my head for a while now; though, a bit like the game itself, it’s taken a while for anything conclusive to occur, I’ve come to realise that this doesn’t matter a jot because (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this) it’s not results that most matter here, it’s the taking part that counts.

As a defiant mingling of silliness and existential performance art, Total Football is Ridiculusmus to a tee. But even such a statement is uncertain because, unusually for them, here they’ve given us a surprisingly conventional linear narrative. David Woods plays Brian, a sweetly ineffectual middle management chap prone to embarrassingly public revelations about his infertility – a witty dig at England’s own limp sporting prowess. Under aggressive direction from his shark-like boss (played by Jon Haynes, who with familiar ease also plays blokey colleague Nigel and a well-meaning immigrant cleaner), Brian bumbles around organising focus groups; his objective? To manufacture some passion for the idea of Team GB at the London Olympics in 2012.

There’s something very desperate about Brian’s quest, especially given that he himself has no feeling at all (let alone any sense of fist-pumping passion) about watching “22 millionaires run around a lawn”. Does he find what he’s looking for? Quite definitely not, in fact he’s about as successful as the England football team post-1966.

Total Football is a something of a quest for both the character of Brian and for Ridiculusmus themselves. Woods and Haynes spend the 50 minutes scrabbling around for a sense of national identity like little boys in a playground kicking around a ball; sometimes they stumble upon something vital and true, but just as often they miss their mark. From their opening sequence, a breathy, almost religious chant of Wayne Rooney’s name over and over again that builds up to a near sexual groan, they nailed down the public’s relationship with their sporting ‘heroes’.  Though often flippant in tone and full of knowing comedy winks, the piece asks some piercing questions.

How do you feel seeing a dead solider carried aloft by his squadron, his casket covered in a Union Jack? Is there something quintessentially British about men who are unable to speak with emotion about anything other than football, for that to be one of the only subjects they can cry about together? In some ways Total Football is a mess; never providing answers to its questions, slippery in its approach and frustratingly masculine in its focus.  But these things didn’t prove alienating to me, as a woman and a complete stranger to football, because the piece also manages to touch upon things deeper and more universal, to speak of human fragility and the tenuousness of British identity.

Runs until 18th June.

Ridiculusmus on Total Football and scrabbling around for national identity

Written for Exeunt

David Woods and Jon Haynes – Ridiculusmus

Two men dressed in suits stood in a suitcase filled with grass. Over the course of 70 minutes they managed to communicate the absurdity and frustration of the stymied Northern Ireland peace process without taking a step out of their turf box. Exuberant, sombre yet defiantly humorous Say Nothing was my first experience of the work of Ridiculusmus. At the time I was a student at the University of Kent, the establishment where David Woods and Jon Haynes also gained their PhDs. With doctorates in, respectively, comedy and performance art, the work of Woods and Haynes has always defied convention. The amalgamation of humour and artistry has helped to make their work incredibly accessible, winning them an affectionate place within the heart of both critics and audiences for the last 18 years.

Nearly two decades of work is an impressive legacy for a still vigorous company of two; many marriages don’t last that long. “Yes but there are three people in our marriage, the third one being the audience!” Down the phone I can hear Woods grinning. “It’s shocking when you think about it… I’ve spent more time with [Haynes] than any other relationship in my life.” Apart from the threesome aspect why has it worked for so long? The answer is refreshingly non-‘luvvie’ “We don’t hang out together (people do find this quite odd)… to keep fresh and excited about meeting we just really meet to work and perform. When we’ve got a show up and running I’ll only really see him a few minutes before the show, it’s driven on the performing.” This sounds like a reasonable statement but I actually do find myself feeling surprised by it; on stage they seem to share a sort of symbiotic understanding of each other which one automatically assumes comes from a long personal friendship.

Continue reading