With an Old Trafford Ashes Test Match taking place in the city for the first time in eight years and for some reason, Roy Harper’s ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ playing on repeat in my head, it felt quite appropriate that the final show of this year’s Manchester Fringe should be ‘Big Sid’ - Jack Rosenthal’s highlight of Granada TV’s mid 70’s ‘Nightingale’s Boys’ series. In turn, it took me back to 1970-something and the thrill of a visit of a film crew to my boys Grammar School to record an assembly sequence for one of the programmes and a TV Times feature on our Deputy Headmaster depicted as a ‘real life Tweety’ Nightingale.
Ian Winterton’s adaptation of ‘Big Sid’ allowed a first viewing since those hazy days of 1976 with a first-rate cast assembled by Director Nick Birchill making the most of the bijou theatre space in The Lass. Recognised by his widow, Maureen Lipman as “one of his most famous characters” local actor Colin Connor unquestionably did justice to the role in portraying the eponymous Sid Taylor - a highly opinionated and brash character who despite finishing second in the Lancashire batting averages for two years, displayed a blunt and forthright attitude of which a proper Yorkshireman would be proud. From the opening sequence where the retiring Sid plays his last innings from the middle of the audience only to bow out with an embarrassing failure (“a bit of muck in me eye!” being reeled off as the standard lame excuse as his wife offers another round of sympathy) up to the climax and his moment of glory when he returns to his old school for Speech Day, the audience sees Sid, his moods and his moral travel a rather bumpy road. Displaying his arrogant self importance as he is being interviewed for his old school magazine by Gary Hanks’ marvellously dim (although not behind the wall) schoolboy reporter Selby, Sid soon proves a most incompetent shoe polisher in trying to come to terms with domestic life. His despair follows quickly as the reality of life beyond retirement and his smooth transition into the real world isn’t as expected and his scathing cynicism and contempt soon take over.
Although appearing very much a meek and submissive character in contrast to her husband, Sid’s wife Sheila (an increasingly confident Emma Laidlaw) is forced to gradually take responsibility for her husband’s shortcomings, climaxing in a powerful interchange, some might call a rant, when she berates Sid, calling his bluff and pulling no punches as she offers up some home truths, such as the way he forsook his team’s needs for his own self-centred gains in his sporting life, climaxing in “And you never once walked!”, in another condemnation of Sid’s increasingly self centred disposition.
Funnily enough, it’s Sid’s old school, as represented by Selby and Matt Lanighan as Nightingale alongside Lisa Connor’s school secretary, which offers some hope, all despite Sid’s animosity towards his old English and Games teacher, ‘Tweety’ Nightingale whom he despises for not recognising his sporting talent in his school days. But again, Connor’s depiction of Sid’s disappointment, realising he’s not the only star turn on Speech Day is plain to see, and the glee with which Sid sees the chance to let rip with a speech at a prize giving ceremony is tangible. His anger with which he vents his twisted philosophy during his rehearsal in front of an impressionable and willing foil in Selby is a key moment played with relish.
It all comes down to the sprightly and animated local businessman Hal Crowther (Will Hutchby) who effectively saves the day in more ways than he could imagine, altering the course of Sid’s destiny with his job offer. It inspires a reversal of Sid’s fortunes and a most uncomfortable about face in his outlook as he realises that time has come to ‘play the game’. As is often made clear, Big Sid isn’t a play about cricket or even the old school network – sport is just the context for a close examination of character and how principles can and sometimes have to be compromised for the sake of what Sid calls “playing with a straight bat”. In resurrecting ‘Big Sid’, The Lass have certainly put on an appropriately fitting end to The Fringe.Review by Mike Ainscoe