Even if you’re not a fan of football, you probably know a bit about its history, from the famous ceasefire match on Christmas Day 1914 to Maradona’s Hand of God. But the women who played football? Not so much. Award-winning playwright Amanda Whittington has attempted to right that wrong with Atalanta Forever, a new musical about the birth of women’s football in post-First World War Britain.
Performed by Mikron Theatre Company (best known for touring the country in a narrowboat), the show centres around the short-lived Huddersfield Atalanta Ladies FC, which ran for five years from 1920 to 1925. We follow the fictionalised friendship between factory worker Ethel (Elizabeth Robin) and teacher Annie (Rachel Benson), two women living their lives on the pitch at a time when football was seen as a “man’s game” and “improper” for women to play.
Atalanta Forever is a show of contrasts, where exaggerated performances are set against a simple goal post draped with hand-knitted AFC scarves. Only a miniature pitch and a bench make up the set, but they are expertly used by the four-person ensemble completed by Thomas Cotran and James McLean. This is big, bombastic theatre – subtlety be damned.
We don’t know the true stories of the women of Huddersfield AFC, so their theatricalised lives have a tendency to slip into sporting-underdog-story clichés: the spunky yet defiant Northerner, the character with a tragic backstory, the disapprovingly tutting parents. Exposition is often delivered with a knowing wink-wink-nudge-nudge for the “anoraks” in the audience, but it can feel a tad Horrible Histories.
But where Mikron (deservedly) get their laughs from cartoonish, panto-esque comedy, the show really excels in its intricacies. The original songs arranged by Rebekah Hughes are musically complex, avoiding clichés as the book is occasionally want to do. “I Raise My Motley Cap”, Anne’s lament to her late husband, highlights the hugely expressive Benson’s buttery alto tones, while “Win or Lose or Draw” and its refrain of “Atalanta forever” are a fitting rallying cry.
In these moments, the cast work in streamlined unity, displaying stunning harmonies and a wealth of musical talent between them. Accordions, violins, trombones and guitars are picked up and set aside, the songs just one of many strings in Mikron’s bow that if anything, could have featured more heavily throughout.
There’s been a lot of talk about theatre’s recovery post-pandemic, the focus resting on West End theatres and big productions. Sitting on a chair in a busy courtyard to watch Mikron perform, I’m reminded of the reality of the UK theatre scene. It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber, but broad, fun theatre performed by multitalented actors in community spaces with the aim of bringing the art form to people and it deserves our support.