When I first learned Circle Theatre was opening its season with a 20-some-year-old British play about a down-on-their-luck rugby team I winced. But let me tell, this is a wonderful production. “Up N’ Under” is truly a heart-warming good time. There are terrific performances and plenty of laughs. Whether, like me, you don’t know the rules of rugby, or you’re a longtime lover of English working class underdog comedies, this show is a hilarious experience. It’s inventively written, tightly directed by Rob Chambers, and the acting could not be stronger.
“Up N’ Under” is a 1984 drama by John Godber, a playwright reportedly known for his “comedies with an edge.” As a miner’s son and an ex-rugby player himself, Godber knows this turf well.
During a heated conversation, Arthur, an ex-pro rugby player portrayed by Andrew J. Pond, impulsively places a bet that he can train any team to crucify the supposedly indestructible Cobblers, known as an unstoppable force in the amateur rugby league. The Cobblers Arms team members are mean machines with terrifying tactics. They’re reputedly the roughest, meanest, dirtiest league champions of all.
The Wheatsheaf pub team in Yorkshire in north England not only has a long unbroken record of defeat but they can only muster a team of four players. They’re a beer-swilling, motley crew of lovable losers composed of a divorced butcher (Shane Hale) who’d win thumbs-down in a John Belushi look-alike competition; a young apprentice miner (Tim Frank); a schoolteacher (Stephen Loch); and a car mechanic (Jeremy Young, who is cast in dual roles.) These strongly portrayed characters are the heart of the whole show.
Arthur is more than challenged. His highly unfit team is pretty uncooperative until he enlists the help of the attractive ex-wife of a top rugby player, now a feisty fitness instructor named Hazel (Mira Vasiljevic). Before we’re actually introduced to this attractive young woman, however, she functions as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the plot and characters in rhyming couplets, initially giving the play a somewhat mythical tone. But once she begins to whip the ragtag team into shape at her gym, working them like dogs, she develops more substance and reality.
The talented cast members each create memorable, endearing characters. The stocky butcher routinely competes wearing his “Jesus sandals,” for instance, while the talkative teacher is ever providing yet another anecdote about his class.
There’s a scene where the team members are all working on gym equipment–stationary bikes and weight training stuff–but it’s actually just a couple benches and stools. The inventive actors are quite believable in their pantomiming, milking a lot of humor out of virtually nothing. They also do a raunchy sort of doo-wop rendition of the old vaudeville hit “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” One guy uses a gym shoe for a microphone.
Yet despite all their renewed spirit and drive, it remains to be seen if the worst pub team in the league can win against the undefeated Cobbler’s Arms. And their coach, Arthur, keeps the truth about his bet a secret.
“I’ll rot in hell for the lies I tell,” he keeps telling us.
As they approached the big climactic rugby match in the second act I wondered how the actors would stage this event with only a cast of six. But this fast-moving, nail-biter episode is achieved with creative two-sided costuming by Christine Conley and precision performing by the actors. The fronts of their rugby uniforms are their Wheatsheaf garb. The backsides are the colors and uniform of the Cobblers Arms, the opposing team. So the actors simply leap around so when we see them from behind they become their snarling pit bull rivals.
This match is so tightly choreographed you actually feel like you’re looking at shots of the game filmed from different angles.
Some of the clichés of underdog sports movies like the “Rocky” series play for big laughs, like slow motion bits where faces are stretched into bizarre distortion during a ballet of body slamming.
Peter J. Storms created a fine sound design. In a show like this where much of the rugby game, the roaring crowd, and other situations are vital, the sound cues and background noise has to be realistic to work.
Christine Adaire was the vocal coach. The north English working class accents sound authentic, yet dialogue is never hard to comprehend.
Bob Knuth’s scenic design and Lori Willis’s artistry created a set that seems expansive in the fairly intimate Skinner Theatre performance space. It works as an outdoor rugby field or as a locker room with special lighting and projected images. Chelsea Lynn designed the lighting.
Nolan Day was the rugby consultant. Kyle Conn is the stage manager.
“Up N’ Under” is a rollicking, feel-good comedy that features talented performers playing off one another like a top-notch cast on a classic TV sitcom.