Saturday 28 March 2020

Stage-to-screen review:
Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual

More online theatre is being announced all the time to fill in the gap left by the buildings being shut, with the majority of what's coming up being shows I've already seen in person and reviewed. But that mainly applies to London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and the regional theatres I don't generally get to have been releasing material as well. In return for a donation, Leicester Curve are offering a recording of their 2018 show Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual for a week - this is an archive recording that was never intended for public release, but I guess even those have moved on in quality over the years, and instead of a static shot this is a perfectly watchable recording done with multiple moving cameras. Riaz Khan's original book was a response to the resurgence of racism on the football terraces in the noughties, through the lens of him finding an identity in the eighties in the unlikely family of the much-derided gangs of violent football hooligans known as casuals.

Nikolai Foster's production turns the story into a two-hander for Riaz (Jay Varsani) and his younger brother Suf (Hareet Deol,) born in Leicester to Pakistani parents and growing up in an atmosphere of overt racism and othering (they get called racist names so often that after a while the play replaces the actual words with angry chalk scratches on the stage.)

But one surprising area where the races seem to mix without problem is in the Baby Squad, the gang of casuals who follow Leicester City FC, not so much for the football as for the opportunity to fight other teams' gangs. Riaz sees joining them as a way to no longer be a victim, and their violent sense of purpose is something he can even justify as part of his heritage, having been raised on stories of being descended from warriors and assassins. But while much of the casuals' lifestyle is about facing up to other gangs with only a minority of encounters actually breaking into violence, the violence is there, and becomes enough of a part of Riaz' response to the world that he ends up doing a prison stretch for GBH.

It's a grubby underside to the story that Grace Smart's design embraces, even as Dougal Irvine's adaptation feels like it perhaps doesn't go so far as to actually glamourise the lifestyle, but certainly doesn't question Khan's actions as far as it could. The real Khan is even brought onto the stage at the end in an attempt at a coup de théâtre that doesn't quite come off, and while we hear that the rediscovery of his Muslim faith is ultimately what saved him, it does seem like the collapse of the casuals after the Hillsborough disaster is the real reason he didn't carry on in the Baby Squad.

The show itself is an entertaining if episodic one though, with a huge amount of energy coming from the cast throughout the show - Deol in particular having to rotate through a large amount of supporting characters at great speed, while both of them breathlessly reenact fights and football matches. Worth a look to support a regional theatre in a difficult time, and it's also nice that, with most of the online theatre content being dominated by big-budget productions, there's also things like this to remind people that theatre is also about stripping everything down to a traverse stage and a couple of actors bringing a world to life.

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual by Dougal Irvine, based on the book by Riaz Khan, is available until the 3rd of April on the Curve Theatre's website.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

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