I don't often get to the theatre these days but Tull at The Octagon in Bolton had caught my eye and I am so glad we made the effort and went.
Walter Tull is believed to be the first black outfield player in British top flight football. In the years before the first world war he was a forward with first Tottenham and then Northampton Town. This is remarkable enough but his sad childhood (death of mother then father) ended with a decade in a children's home in Bethnal Green. He shared this time with a brother for the first two years but the brother was adopted by a couple from Glasgow separating Walter from this last link with his family. Football appears to have then become Tull's life.
But with the story of any young man in early twentieth century Europe one always knows what is coming: four long grinding years of war - if you live that long. Walter volunteered for the First Footballers' Batallion and served with distinction for nearly all the war, becoming one of the first black officers (which was in itself against the rules) and being recommended for the military cross, an award inexplicably denied him. Walter lost his life in the March of the last year of the war in the spring offensive of 1918. A fellow footballer risked his life to try rescue Walter's body but it couldn't be done and Walter is one of many with no known grave.
The Octagon's version of Walter's life is a remarkable piece of theatre. Eight men and women with no props, no set, and a muted 'costume' of neutral colours in stretchy fabric produce in that tiny space in the round: a Kent childhood, a boisterous children's home, football training, aggressive matches, the searing liquid anger of the terraces, the politics of war and peace and women's suffrage, and the small scale development of the character of one man in a context of extraordinary circumstances. Phil Vasili's script is tight and exciting but leaves plenty of space for the emotional ride of Walter's life too.
Every inch of space was used. Dozens of characters were portrayed with actors slipping effectively from one accent to another, one characterto another, two scenes often playing at once. It was all so seamless, and there was never any doubt what or whom you were watching. The cast's skill at characterisation was remarkable but almost paled into insignificance at what they achieved physically. The fights (childhood and adult, football and war) and the representation of the beautiful game itself were a triumph of choreography and execution. The standing ovation the cast received at the end was well deserved. If you are anywhere remotely near Bolton I can't recommend this production enough: social history and drama at its best, it is a truly special piece of theatre.
You can sign an e-petition which calls upon the government to posthumously award Walter Tull the Military Cross for which he was recommended.
Tull at The Ocatgon Bolton is on until 16th March and the play is based on Phil Vasili's own biography of the footballer: Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn't Wake Me