Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Muddy Cows” which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Sat 14th September 2013
Whilst the cast of this play really do get muddier and muddier as the show progresses and are indeed all female, I couldn’t help noticing that they tend to have two legs each rather than four.
Far from being bovine, they are the lively and passionate sportswomen of Scarfield Ladies Rugby Union Club but, frankly, they’re pretty rubbish…at first. They can barely scrape a team together, they have to borrow kit, they can’t afford a minibus and pre-match overnight accommodation consists of a pair of dodgy tents in a farmer’s field.
John Godber has clearly done his research…hanging around the changing rooms and talking to real life players in the fastest growing women’s sport. His portrayal of the pleasure and (mostly) pain of this Cinderella of the sporting world rings very true as a social documentary … but fails to score in the entertainment stakes.
Much of Act 1 is taken up with women moaning about not being taken seriously or, worse still, being ignored by the male game. There’s despair at the lack of sponsorship opportunities and deep discussion about the dampness of the rugby shirts. All this had doubtlessly been carefully recorded in Godber’s little notebook and felt so authentic that before long I was wondering why the women bothered to turn up to play at all. I then began to wonder why I had.
The play was commissioned by Chris Monks for his Scarborough summer season and the original thinking was to rework Godber’s huge 1984 success “Up and “Under” for an all female cast. This was probably a good idea; but we’ll never know because instead the playwright went away and wrote a whole new play – as playwrights are wont to do. Sadly Muddy Cows doesn’t soar to the same heights as its predecessor.
For a start there’s no rugby. We do see the girls rehearsing their line outs as if preparing a routine for ‘Strictly Come Rugby” and it’s a highlight of the show. But otherwise we’re condemned to despondent discussions in squalid dressing rooms. Godber’s trademark themes of the plight of the struggling underdog and the abused and neglected are all present and correct – though in a strangely watered down manner. He carefully assembles an interesting cross section of characters but then does little with them. There’s a very neat theatrical device of having one actor playing identical twins (one of whom is often conveniently in the loo) but it’s frustratingly underdeveloped. It was almost as if I was watching a blueprint for a very promising play.
Fortunately it’s a game to two halves and things do pick up after the interval when the girls enter a one day rugby sevens competition and ‘domestics’ arise. Suddenly there are some good performances…especially from Amy Thompson whose breakdown at the news of her husband’s infidelity makes uncomfortable tearful viewing. Claire Eden has some lovely one-liners, as she swaps from twin to twin, and delivers them with the delicacy of a sumo wrestler. And Abi Titmuss’s doctor shakes off the aloofness that constrained her first half performance and becomes a more fully rounded character.
The plot makes an appearance too as the girls progress through the rounds against weaker opposition only to come up rather abruptly against the female equivalent of the All Blacks. For a while the play has purpose and drive…till the ref abandons the game because of a waterlogged pitch. But it’s too little too late and, judged against John Godber’s excellent body of previous work, it’s an opportunity missed. And there was no Man of the Match.