It was the surprise that surprised me most. I thought I knew what I would be getting when heading to the Pavilion Theatre to see Tony Roper’s 2014 version of his play about Celtic and Seville in 2003: a fairly standard re-treading of stories about the fans who made it to Andalucía for the final with a few Celtic songs and scarves thrown in for good measure. Turns out I couldn’t have been further off the mark if I’d been wearing Filip Sebo’s boots.
Somehow, this show manages to capture a lot of the excitement, joy and sorrow that made up that unforgettable sequence of games that took us from Suduva to Seville with stop offs along the way in Blackburn, Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Porto (for the semi-final v Boavista). It achieves this with a story that has been expertly crafted by the writer of one of the most popular Scottish stage plays of recent times, The Steamie, and which shares that play’s rich seam of working-class Glasgow humour throughout. It is of course a help that the writer/director is a dedicated Celtic fan himself.
Tony Roper was originally driven to write the play as a celebration of the support and the unique nature of the event which drew tens of thousands of Tims from across the globe to the southern Spanish city. He wisely chose not to focus the play on Seville itself though – only a few minutes of stage time is taken up there – but instead tracked the march with O’Neill through the rounds as the realisation slowly dawned that Celtic might just make it to their first European final in over three decades.
The songs are plentiful and they’re not simply manufactured for this production either. Many of the popular fan chants and songs from 2002-3 are recalled here although the best moment is probably a rendition by Ginty (the mother, wife and daughter of the three main protagonists) of a song which popularised a glorious Jimmy McGrory hat-trick from the 1920s, which she learnt at her father’s knee. Within the cast there are three tricoloured troubadours who make frequent appearances at various junctures with guitar, banjo and bodhran to get the audience clapping and singing along. (Although opening night was a Wednesday the audience then really didn’t need much encouragement to join in).
The naysayers may of course proclaim that there’s little point in watching a play about something that ultimately ends up in defeat for Celtic – but they’ve missed the obvious point. It’s not about the team, it’s about the fans. And it’s not about the final, it’s about the journey to the final. What the play brought back was a lot of great memories about some fantastic performances and nights at Celtic Park and beyond. There is footage shown from almost all of the games along the way and it was these scenes that transported me back over a decade to a very different Celtic team and time – Momo Sylla’s tremendous strike against Basel, the clinical despatch of Blackburn on their own patch, the goals scored and then conceded at an alarming rate in the Gottlieb Daimler Stadion, the unexpectedly glorious performance at Anfield, the missed penalty against Boavista in the semi-final first leg, the tension of the away leg. And, of course, the King of Kings at every turn whose presence throughout receives the warmest of welcomes.
It is the characters of the extended McMahon family that take us on this familiar journey. There’s armchair fan, Grandad Eddie, who conducts a running battle by phone with his neighbour and pal, Roddy the Proddy, with most blows being struck in the aftermath of either team losing valuable points in the title race. There’s Ginty and Mick, the mother and father of Michael, whose impending nuptials with Anne-Marie provide a love story (of sorts!) running through the production. There’s Michael’s best man and fellow supporter Kevin, bar man extraordinaire, who can only parry rather than keep secrets – much in the style of Rab Douglas. And then there’s the familiar face of Douglas Sannachan in the pantomime villain role of street vendor for the ‘Daily Deceiver’ – he’s been treading the boards in Scotland for a good few years and featured in Bill Forsyth’s early films including the role as window cleaner in the unforgettable ‘Gregory’s Girl’ with the line: “If I don’t see you though the week, I’ll see you through a windae”. He certainly seemed to enjoy the reaction from the audience as his vendor gets more and more agitated as Celtic home in on the final spot in Seville, which he tries to downplay unsuccessfully with all the bitterness of a tyro Jack Irvine.
The success of the play lies in the attention to detail paid to the nuances of Glaswegian speech and banter, such as the crucial difference between ‘bhoys’ and ‘boys’ – especially when Graeme Souness is using them. Not all the jokes work, naturally, and some are telegraphed like a Bobo Balde bone-shaker of a tackle which you can see coming from a mile away. Sometimes the humour strays into Mrs Brown territory which is not to everyone’s taste – but it is the Pavilion after all. The quality of the music, generally good, should improve as the run progresses also. Yet, the production as a whole achieves its aim of re-telling the story of one of the most exciting and unforgettable times as a Celtic supporter in the modern era.
All in all, a truly memorable Celtic night out with an engaging story and performances, some wonderful memories rekindled, lots of laughs, great songs old and new – and an atmosphere that has been sadly lacking at times at Celtic Park this season.
The Shamrock rating: 7/10
Review by The Obliterator
Ticket information: http://www.paviliontheatre.co.uk/shows/the-celts-in-seville-by-tony-roper/