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Kate Attwell

Bolton Octagon, Orange Tree Theatre and English Touring Theatre co-production

Bolton Octagon

May 23-June 1, 2024

Aarushi Riya Ganju, Tanya Katyal and Bea Svistunenko (front l-r) in Testmatch
Aarushi Riya Ganju, Tanya Katyal and Bea Svistunenko (front l-r) in Testmatch
Banner showing a three star ating

The monsoon finally stopped in Bolton on Friday as the opening night of this rain-stopped-play cricketing story got underway. Nothing like a little verisimilitude – and audience chat about waterlogged local wickets – to get us in the mood for this tale of the women’s game, the laws of cricket, the running of empire, corruption, subjugation and whether the overarm bowling action was invented by women to avoid snagging the ball in voluminous skirts.

Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, set at a one-day World Cup match between England and India, as six players wait for the eternal British rain to stop, began life in New York and was first performed in San Francisco. We can only guess at how that audience coped with it. At one point there is a classic description of the game, defined in terms of baseball as told to an American (in this case, an uncomprehending US tennis star boyfriend) but that is really the only quarter given.

The structure of cricket, its history, its laws (not rules), its clash of class and cultures, underpin everything here, as huge topics careen dizzyingly between the highly-talented actors. The fact that I almost wrote “testosterone-fuelled” to describe Bea Svistunenko (England 1) adds yet another layer of complexity, as the players square up to each other in time-honoured male fashion.

In the space of an hour in part one we cover team dynamics, war, sexual relationships, racism, geopolitics, gamesmanship, cheating (interestingly, a perennial issue in cricket, far more so than in other team sports), mental health and the Tamil-dubbed oeuvre of Angela Lansbury, all within the stifling framework of the (untaught) history of British rule in India.

The Formula 1 pace of the play means its staging in the round is a real issue at times. Dramatically, the constraining podium set works well, but the sheer speed of delivery makes some of the dialogue difficult to understand when the actor is facing away from you. The higher register of the female voice (in particular Tanya Katyal, who brings a magnetic hyperactivity to India Three and Abhi) and the Indian accents are perhaps to blame; does that reflect on the audience’s cultural limitations, or the production?

Director Diane Page’s confident handling of this wild and witty play doesn't quite make up for the fact that towards the end of Part One it seems to lose its way, becoming repetitive and drawn out as it moves towards not very surprising revelations. These then feel forced, with insufficient time to develop.

During the interval we travel in time to the 18th Century – like you do – and there is some awkward audience participation. And then the Pythonesque satire of part two is underway, with the writing of the immensely detailed and proscriptive laws of cricket by two foppish English administrators, a rather heavy-handed metaphor for the ferocious grip the East India Company had on the subcontinent.

The comedy is at times uncomfortable and out of kilter here, as the wails of the dispossessed and starving at the gates are only faintly heard and lightly sketched, as is the morphine addiction of the memsahib (Mia Turner), who has less status than the housekeeper, and the odd introduction of some cricketing genetic coding.

The set-piece exposition of the reality of life in Empire-ravaged Bengal is powerfully delivered by Aarushi Riya Ganju, but its “here comes the history bit” tone feels like an afterthought.

And in case you wondered, the tale of big skirts gifting us the overarm delivery is apparently true…

More info and tickets here


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