Last evening I went to see Offside at the Wardrobe Theatre in Old Market, Bristol. The play, by Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish, was performed by Daphne Kouma, Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher. It tells the story of two women footballers who dream of playing for England. Mickey is inspired by the story of black Scottish goal keeper Carrie Boustead, and Keeley by Preston player Lily Parr (1905–1978).
One of the play’s pivotal moments is the ban imposed on women’s football by the Football Association (FA) in 1921 – a ban which was not lifted until 1971! It also looks at how women athletes are portrayed in the media, issues around body image, what women wear, and the pressure on women to conform to imposed gender roles – such as not playing football. In addition, it references links between Scottish football and the women’s suffrage campaign. For example, though not mentioned explicitly in the play, Scotland’s first female football team was set up by suffragist Helen Graham Matthews (see link to Daily Record below).
I’m not the least bit interested in football, but I am interested in seeing traditional gender and race stereotypes challenged into the ground, and Offside certainly brought home the absurdity of the FA’s claim that football was not suitable for women’s bodies. Women’s strength is certainly an adjustable thing so far as the male is concerned: they are too delicate for football but not for skivvying and fetching and carrying. This was brought over in a scene that put me in mind of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in which she challenged the white male view of women as delicate creatures who had to be helped into carriages by pointing out that she, who worked as hard as any man, was never helped into a carriage – because she was a black woman. Women’s strength is allowed only so far as it is appropriate to their allotted roles in terms of class, race, labour and gender. Perhaps that’s why women playing football, or engaging in any sport, is such a threat: this is women being strong in and for themselves. And didn’t the cast play their parts with a strength and energy it was a delight to watch!
The play is short – only seventy five minutes without an interval – and it certainly moves along quickly. For all that, I didn’t think it lacked emotional impact. Far from it. The characters’ fears, their will to freedom, the burdens they carry in terms of family, professional and societal needs and expectations, were powerfully portrayed.
In the end I felt the play wasn’t just about football: it was about women pursuing perfection in their chosen field regardless of the pressures and expectations that seek to hold them back. That’s how it spoke to me, anyway. I’m a writer – an activity about as far removed from the football pitch as you can get. Yet this play left me feeling renewed inspiration to continue what is often a struggle to keep writing in spite of all the pressures: you should be doing the housework; women are supposed to write either chick lit or feisty heroines; more men’s books get reviewed than women’s; if you want to write in certain genres you better pretend you’re a man (heard of J K Rowling?). All the nasty negative stuff that doesn’t want you to succeed – all the FAs under another name.
If the measure of a good play is when you leave the theatre buzzing with ideas and impressions and feelings and admiration and just sheer love of theatre, then for me Offside was a good play. I loved it.
It has been suggested that Carrie Boustead was a white player who has been mistaken for Emma Clarke (1896–?). That being so, it’s a puzzle as to why the production continues to use the name Carrie Boustead instead of Emma Clarke. Do they have evidence refuting this suggestion? If not, why not make the change? Too many women have been erased from history, and if we are to recover them then surely the first step is to get their names right. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/mar/28/britains-first-black-female-footballer-emma-clarke-1890s-play
‘Offside: The shocking moment that female footballers were banned for fifty years’, The Guardian, 20 March 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/mar/20/offside-play-female-footballers-banned-fa
Image: The British Library on Flickr