New Wolsey’s Our Blue Heaven stages a musical return to Ipswich Town’s FA Cup win
- Credit: Archant
The New Wolsey Theatre has always been part of the community. For artistic director Peter Rowe, the 40th anniversary of Ipswich Town’s FA Cup win was a perfect opportunity to create an ambitious musical celebration. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him.
You don’t have to be a football fan to be enveloped in a warm glow when you remember Bobby Robson’s tenure at Portman Road. During the 1970s and early ‘80s, Ipswich Town Football Club regularly did battle with the top flight clubs of, what was then, the First Division and more than held their own.
Over the years Liverpool, Manchester United, West Ham, Burnley, Wolves, Chelsea, Nottingham Forest and famously West Bromwich Albion were all bested by the disciplined Ipswich side.
But, winning the FA Cup, beating Arsenal at Wembley, in May 1978, still holds a special in many Suffolk people’s hearts. It helped put Ipswich on the map and reaffirmed Ipswich Town as one of the top flight clubs in the country.
But, behind any historic achievement there is always a human story, a behind-the-scenes drama, not necessarily at the football club but in the lives of the supporters as they invested their time, money and emotional energy in willing their footballing idols to greatness.
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These are the stories that writer and New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe wanted to uncover when he issued a plea last year for stories about Ipswich Town’s FA Cup win.
Out of the fans collective memories, he has fashioned Our Blue Heaven, a musical journey back to 1978, telling of Ipswich Town’s momentous journey to Wembley. But, as Peter explains, it’s not a chronological re-telling of footballing success but rather a portrait of the fans themselves accompanied by the hits of the day.
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Obviously you have got a wealth of personal stories, plus the official story of the FA Cup campaign, how did you go about reducing it down into a coherent narrative?
“I was lucky because there was one particular story that spoke to me straight away. This gentleman, who is now in his 50s, had a remarkable story to tell. He was brought up by his Dad, his Mum died when he was eight, and he and his Dad had gone to all the Ipswich games. It had become a big bonding thing for him and his Dad, as it does for a lot of fathers and sons.
“The club handed out vouchers at home games which, if they won, would allow you the opportunity to buy Wembley tickets. They collected all these vouchers and put them in a blue jar on the mantelpiece. So after the semi-final win he goes to the vase and he can’t find the vouchers. He searches the house and he can’t find them.
“He goes to his Dad and says: ‘I can’t find the vouchers.’ His Dad looks at him and says: ‘What would you say if I told you I have sold them?’ And the boy replies: ‘ You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t do that,’ and that is where the conversation finished. His father now has dementia and in those years, they never had the rest of that conversation. That was the story that spoke to me the most and that’s when I knew we had the basic germ of a story.”
Presumably, you have given a lot of thought to re-creating the feel of the time?
“We have used other stories and events to add colour. There was a firemen’s strike that winter when the army brought out The Green Goddesses – it was the winter before The Winter of Discontent, there was lots of industrial unrest, and in our story one girl’s father is a firemen, who is on strike, doesn’t have any money, and his elder daughter is getting married, so there is the pressure of raising money for the wedding.
“The show is an amalgam of lots of different stories, we have swapped some about, joined others together, so everything you see in the show happened to someone, not necessarily, the characters you see on stage.”
Music is an integral part of the show. How important is the music in transporting back the audience to 1978?
“We have some Elvis Costello, some Clash, some Bee Gees, we have got some Patti Smith. In many ways I have treated the structure of the play rather like a rock’n’roll panto. The Bristol game, which was on ice and everyone says shouldn’t have been played, and Ipswich very nearly went out is accompanied by the song Staying Alive. The game at Millwall, which nearly got called off because the Millwall fans invaded the pitch, that’s London Calling going into White Riot by The Clash, I’ve picked songs that were on the radio at the time, such as Because The Night by Patti Smith Group. You’ve got punk, New Wave and disco – and then you’ve got Abide With Me.”
How are you going to recreate the matches on stage?
“I always knew we weren’t going to have a ball because a ball on stage is a nightmare, so we are doing them in a very stylised way and we are trying to bring out a different flavour for each game because it has a different musical accompaniment. The nine people in the community company are wonderfully enthusiastic and are working hard with Tom Hobden, from DanceEast, to make the games really come to life.”
The cast features some familiar faces. How did you go about recruiting cast members for the show?
“It’s an ensemble company and quite a few of them are playing more than one character but there is also a traditional New Wolsey, actor/ musician feel to the show and we have a talent base that we are happy to tap into and use. It’s a very New Wolsey style of presentation. We have three cast members who are the core of the band but others add to the line-up as and when they are needed.
Did you have a lot of material that you were forced to leave out because of time?
“There were lots of different stories but actually I wouldn’t say that there was anything I really lost any sleep over not including. Once I had that one central story, the rest of it was more flavouring really about what it meant to people really and how they got caught up in the team’s success.
It’s also a celebration of the era.
“Absolutely, and as you work through it, you realise how much things have changed – both in football and in life. The whole experience of going to matches has changed beyond all recognition. People forget about the violence that went on at matches back then. You look at the footage of the Millwall game and you are staggered and you realise then how close it came to being abandoned.”
Our Blue Heaven, by Peter Rowe, is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until May 26.