Sometimes touching, sometimes brutal, The Season Ticket is a great four-way collaboration portraying lives on the fringe of society.
Could you assemble a better team? Lee Mattinson has already shown how skilled his writing is with Donna Disco and Chalet Lines. Pilot Theatre wowed us with one of the best staged plays ever with The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Northern Stage, of course, as an excellent track record of mainstream productions. And Purely Belter, the film adaptation already made of the book this is based on, is a cult classic in Newcastle. And yet seemingly surefire collaborations don’t always work out. Such high expectation can set up such bitter disappointments. But not here. The Season Ticket is every bit as good as I hoped it would be, and more.
Gary and Sewell are two young lads at the very bottom of the pile. Gary has a sister who is desperate to get her A-levels so that – it is quietly understated – she can get out and move on to a better life – Gary has given up on going to school, and best friend Sewell has seemingly given up in general ever since his father died. The two of them begin in the middle of an inept petty crime, looking for suitable luxury household appliances to burgle from their headmaster’s house. Perhaps, it’s suggested early on, it’s got something to do with Gary having a half-inattentive alcoholic mother. But it emerges that she, too, has her own reasons to give up, once it emerges what sort of person Gary’s father was and what he did to them.
Writing about the most disaffected of society is a bit of a minefield. It’s often said the reason the poorer half of society doesn’t come to the theatre is because they think they’ll be looked down on, and for all the talk of the arts championing the cause of the most disadvantaged, it’s all too easy to the poorest and their flight as an easy political football to point fingers at your chosen pre-existing hate figures (on, in extreme cases, the poorest themselves are painted with some horrible snobbish stereotypes if they fail to fit into an approved mould of what working-class people should be). If you want to know whether Lee Mattinson’s done a good job, I’m not really the person you should be asking, nor are anyone the other critics. The people whose views matter are the Garys and Sewells of the world.
But that caveats aside, this is a sympathetic and believable depiction. No matter how big a United fan you are, Gary’s grand scheme to save a thousand pounds for a pair of season tickets seems like a needless extravagance. Why not just watch it at the pub? Surely someone like Gary could better spend the money elsewhere. Ah, but to Gary, it’s so much more than some football matches. It’s a sense of purpose, of belonging to a team he feels shut out of. To Gary, the team isn’t just the eleven men on the pitch, it’s the 50,000 men in St. James’ Park, fitting illustrated throughout the play by the radio updates darting between the struggle for Newcastle United to stay in the Premiership and their struggle to find the money, as if it’s just as important. And of course it is.
Nor does the story go for simplistic enemies of systems or society. Gary’s violent father (a sterling performance from Joe Caffrey) is an obvious baddie – after that it gets more complicated. His failure to attend school is down to a losing battle between teachers and social workers who want him back, and a headmaster who’d rather pupils like Gary stay home and stop looking bad in front of Ofsted inspectors. The unfairness of a situation where the headmaster’s own sun trains for Newcastle United’s youth academy is not lost on Gary. But is Gary’s worst enemy himself? Gary causally lies and cheats to get all he can for his season ticket, but his worst lying and cheating is done to those closest to him, the ones he fears he will lose.
How does Pilot Theatre do? Their director, Katie Poser, is a Pilot Theatre associate director, so the production is very much theirs in terms of creativity. You don’t see anything as innovative as the staging in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which had an incredible running treadmill and a moving projected background, but the set it still impressive. Moving section of flats forming all sorts of scene, often the dilapidated homes, and set changes so slick to don’t even notice they’ve happened. Live and Northern Stage veterans provide some of the cast of six, but with the play swinging from the brutality of Gary and Sewell’s lives to the humanity of it, I didn’t see a weak link anywhere in the production.
Dare I say it? This might be the best thing I’ve ever seen at Northern Stage for years. I can think of the odd play in the back catalogue that compete for the #1 all-time slot, but it’s a struggle. And take no notice of the review saying the play’s over-complicated – it’s a tight multi-layered play that says so much in one story. The play say little about football, but a lot about why the cherished season ticket means so much.