On Our Way to Lisbon

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It's Friday the 13th and I thought I'd do something scary so I'm at Birnam Arts about to watch a play about Celtic's 1967 European Cup campaign called 'On Our Way to Lisbon'.  It's not because I'm a Rangers fan that I'm so terrified, it's just, well, football is my Kryptonite!  

All of my adult life I've lived in dread of getting drawn into a conversation about football, fearing that my status as a man will be diminished when I know nothing about formations, transfer windows or most sweaty palm inducing of all, the offside rule.  I become paralysed with fear when I step into a taxi and I'm almost immediately greeted with the seemingly innocent question designed to strike fear into the heart of the non-football fan: 'Did you see the game last night?'  No I didn't see the bloody game!  But I have read the complete works of the poet and Football is my Kryptonite!visionary Willam Blake, how about we talk about that instead?

It didn't use to be this way.  As a young child, I would often go to see Saints play at Muirton Park with my friend and his dad.  I was the goalie at cub football on a Saturday and I loved playing indoor five-a-side on Sundays.  By the time the 1986 World Cup rolled around I was a fully-fledged football fanatic, pouring all my money into completing the Mexico '86 Panini sticker album that I got for my birthday that year.

I think the turning point came when I accidentally got Maradonna and Madonna confused.  'Did you see that handball Madonna done in the quarter-finals?'  For weeks my classmate would follow me around the playground singing 'Like a Virgin' in a lisping Hispanic accent.  It was humiliating, but at the same time also very catchy.

I've brought my mum tonight who doesn't seem to share my anxiety about the plays source material, in fact, quite the opposite, talking about football gives her the opportunity to tell me again that she was best friends with Archie Gemmell growing up.  

Tonight's play is performed by the insanely talented duo of Pat Abernethy and Dave Marsden who play the lead characters of Denny and Tony who are just about to attend the funeral of their friend Gerry who has just died of cancer.  It occurs to them that Gerry died on a very significant date, May the 25th, the date in Dave and Pat recreate the entire tournament, taking on the role of commentators, fans, managers, and players of all nationalities.1967 that Celtic reached the final of the European Cup.  

From this point, Dave and Pat recreate the entire tournament, taking on the role of commentators, fans, managers, and players of all nationalities.  At one point Dave even does an uncanny impression of a temperamental old wireless radio as Pat fiddles with it, eventually getting it to work by giving it a good dunt.

The story plays out like a typical underdog sports movie, the momentum building as the team progress through the tournament.  My lack of football knowledge turns out to be a huge plus as I literally have no idea what is going to happen next.  I have a vague idea they got to the final but have no idea how they progressed so it all seems fresh to me and it's actually really exciting and absorbing.  These guys are master storytellers and the way they flit between characters is seamless and utterly beguiling.  

I'd read reviews of the play that said it was hilarious and it turns out they were completely accurate, it's bloody hilarious.  Part of this is down to the cracking script by Patrick Prior but a large part of it is down to the chemistry and performances by the two leads.  They have been doing the play for 30 years now and it is like a well-oiled machine yet they have still maintained their passion for the material.  It's a pretty physical performance too that sees them diving and running about the stage.  My mum seems to be in constant fear that one of them is going to do a Dave Grohl and break their leg.

Another highlight of 'On Our Way to Lisbon' is the Celtic chant's enthusiastically performed by Pat and Dave including the immortal: 'He's here, he's there, he's every f*cking where!  Feed the bear!  Feed the bear!' (In reference to striker John 'Yogi' Hughes.  Mum, who was 20 years old and working in Glasgow in 67, gets a kick out of all the cultural, musical, and geographical references.  I ask her if Tommy Gemmell was any relation to Archie, 'No, but I knew him as well'.  It strikes a balance somewhere between 'Still Game'  and Graham Swift's 'Last Orders'.It's depressing, even my mother knows more about football than me.

It's not all fun and games though as the play deals with serious issues like grief, growing old and unfulfilled dreams.  Sometimes it does this with wry humour but other moments are played completely straight.  It strikes a balance somewhere between 'Still Game'  and Graham Swift's 'Last Orders'.

I'd done my homework and had seen that 'On Our Way to Lisbon' was well-reviewed so I was pretty sure I'd enjoy but I was surprised at how much.  I could honestly recommend it to anyone, football fans will love it (with the possible exception of Rangers supporters) and Celtic fans will think they have died and went to footballing heaven.  

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