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The sky above the enormous expanse of the Piece Hall’s 18th-century, colonnaded quad rings to the cries of a pair of hawks. They circle, swoop and dive over the heads of the audience. Afterwards, I am told that they are protesting at the return of people to a space that, during lockdowns, they came to see as their own. Serendipitously, below, on and around a tiny, makeshift stage, framed by metal poles that serve both as proscenium arch and football goalposts, a four-strong company choruses: “I just wanna fly like a bird on the wing” (nifty design by Celia Perkins; nimble music and lyrics by Kieran Buckeridge). Their song harmoniously hymns the Greek goddess Atalanta, inspiration to those Huddersfield lasses who, in 1920, wanting to make their mark as footballers, named their team after the divine athlete.
Set in the aftermath of the first world war, Amanda Whittington’s new play follows the rise and suppression of women’s football in the early 20th century. Fictional characters, Latinist schoolteacher Annie (Rachel Benson) and factory worker Ethel (Elizabeth Robin), struggle to get the real-life Atalanta Ladies Football Club up and running in the face of class- and sex-based prejudices (sharply expressed by James McLean as Ethel’s mother and Thomas Cotran as a medical “expert”). Through them, we learn how, between 1916 and 1922, women’s football attracted huge crowds (up to 53,000) and raised impressive sums for causes including war wounded and unemployed workers (as much as £600,000 in today’s terms). With them, we feel the pain of the FA’s 1921 declaration that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”, leading to its ban on women playing at league grounds.
Whittington’s script offers gems for sports fans, classicists, social historians, feminists and pacifists, old and young, fully justifying Mikron Theatre Company’s boast that it creates “theatre anywhere for everyone”. At times, the drama stumbles as facts take possession of the fiction. Ultimately, though, under the tactical direction of Marianne McNamara and Rebekah Hughes (music), this multi-skilled team delivers winning entertainment. The hawks retire to watch from their nearby spire.
• Atalanta Forever tours until 19 September