“Red Pitch” @sohoplace

Neil Dowden in the West End
26 March 2024

Tyrell Williams won a clutch of awards for most promising playwright with his debut play Red Pitch, which premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2022 and was revived there last year. Now Daniel Bailey’s production with the same cast has transferred to the West End @sohoplace. While James Graham’s Dear England (whose transfer from the National Theatre to Prince Edward Theatre recently ended) dramatized the pressures of playing football at the top of the international game, the much more intimate Red Pitch looks at the grass-roots of the sport. Ultimately, neither play is actually about kicking a ball around.


Emeka Sesay, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Francis Lovehall.
Photo credit: Helen Murray.


In 90 minutes – the same length as a soccer match though without a half-time interval –Williams focuses on three 16-year-old black British boys from a south London housing estate who dream of becoming professional footballers. With a trial for Queens Park Rangers looming – their big chance to make it – their hopes and anxieties are examined, as well as the strain it puts on their friendship as camaraderie and rivalry collide. Moreover, the council pitch they have played on for years honing their skills is in danger of being redeveloped, as part of a wider gentrification of the area that threatens the stability of the local community.

Joey (a goalkeeper) is sensibly doing a business studies course in case his footie dream doesn’t materialize. The super-competitive Bilal – who posts video clips on YouTube – has been spurred on to succeed by his father. Omz, though, has caring responsibilities for his frail grandfather which means his family may have to move away from the “endz” where he has grown up to a different part of town. Amidst the banter and boisterousness of teenagers, there is an awareness that they are on the cusp of change one way or another, and that the “red pitch” – which like an oasis has served as an escape from the tedium and stresses of the outside world – may be left behind with their childhood.

Williams – who apparently is using memories from his own working-class upbringing – nails this transitional moment in the three protagonists’ lives with sensitivity and humour. As young males conditioned to hide their emotions as weakness, they struggle to articulate what they feel but that very struggle expresses much, while their shared experiences mean they communicate in shorthand often physically rather than verbally. Like Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy now enjoying its second West End transfer down Charing Cross Road at the Garrick Theatre – Red Pitch touches on issues around masculinity and mental wellbeing, in a welcome diversification of London’s theatreland, both on stage and in the auditorium.

The in-the-round layout of @sohoplace suits the play perfectly, with the audience becoming a football crowd – indeed before the show starts a few members are invited on stage for a kick-around with the performers, who also chat with those in the front rows. Bailey’s engaging, dynamic production scores highly on fluidity and physicality.

Amelia Jane Hankin’s simple but effective set features a concrete-style pitch with white line markings surrounded by a low red railing, which the actors ritualistically tap on twice each time they enter and exit. In stylized fantasy sequences between scenes – as each character imagines hitting the big time – Ali Hunter’s lighting design mimics a football stadium’s floodlights, while Khalil Madovi’s sound re-creates the roar of a crowd. Gabrielle Nimo’s movement direction incorporates an exuberant club dance scene, while Kev McCurdy’s fight direction creates a convincingly visceral explosion of anger.

The cast of three – who have been together for much of the last two years – are fully believable playing characters several years younger than their age, as well as long-term friends with their natural interactions – not to mention displaying impressive football skills. Kedar Williams-Stirling (who has appeared in Netflix’s Sex Education and Steve McQueen’s TV drama series Small Axe) gives Bilal a driven, intense energy. Francis Lovehall (also in Small Axe) shows the vulnerable side of Omz who has missed training due to his family commitments. And Emeka Sesay is disarmingly funny as the more laid-back Joey who sometimes has to act as peacemaker. The latter two actors actually came close to playing football professionally, but all three pass the ball to each other as instinctively as they speak Williams’s authentic vernacular dialogue.