Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual is described as ‘real life fashions, fights and faith of a former Baby Squad football hooligan. Riaz Khan wrote the original memoirs and now it has been adapted into an exciting and thought provoking play by Dougal Irvine and directed by Nikolai Foster. It has its world premiere at Curve Leicester until Saturday 6th October.
But how does this play come over to this pacifist reviewer who has little interest in football and none in racism and violence? Did 1980s predominantly white gang membership for this Asian lad named Riaz Khan give him any true sense of belonging or any future sense of cultural integration? Was it just the fashions of the time that held appeal? Being in fashion is often a key attraction for many growing up as teenagers as they wish not to be seen as outsiders and assimilation is the aim for most. So they dress the same and share similar tastes in music often associated with the fashions. The fashion ‘uniform’ becomes a symbol of unity. These are questions this reviewer asks himself prior to the performance and, for the moment, who better to answer them but Riaz Khan himself in his fine book, Khan, Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual.
Riaz Khan claims that he thought he looked a ‘right div’ in the 1980s. In his writing he says “My dress sense was terrible. In those days it was the Oxford ‘shit catcher’ baggies, big collared shirts and plimsolls with a centre parting hairstyle. In came the leather box jackets, ski jumpers and tight jeans. In the early 80’s all the kids at school either dressed up in Mod outfits or as New Romantics or dressed down as Greboes.
During this period Suf and I were struggling with our identities and there was that tide of racism to contend with. I found this quite strange, as Mods listened to Tamla Motown and Northern Soul, whilst the Skinheads listened to Ska music. Who were the lead singers of these records? How ironic is that?
Racism in those days was fuelled by the National Front who claimed that all immigrants were taking the white man’s jobs. (But we were invited by the government to work here??) The NF and the national newspapers would always make silly claims about ‘being swamped by immigrants’ which in turn caused widespread hatred toward all ethnic minorities. You would think this poison would drive me closer to my ethnicity but that was not the case because I really wanted to fit in. I could not be a Skinhead because of the racist ideology and they would never accept Asians (though maybe blacks). I could not be a Mod because most held the same views and I was never going to be a Grebo (Heavy Metal freak) as they were smelly, scruffy and also racist! I liked the New Romantic look but it seemed a little effeminate to me even though the music was good, (e.g. the Human League’s ‘Love Action’). So I ended up being a Soul Boy after a trip to Walthamstowe in London.
… the photos in The Face magazine about soccer casuals. It was not so much the content of the article but the photos that had me intrigued. This one picture had three young men sitting on a train sporting these flick haircuts and wearing clothes that I had never seen before except at Wimbledon or the US Open. I’d also read another article in a national newspaper highlighting a new era of soccer thugs focussed on the Leeds Service Crew. There was a picture of a group of thirty odd young white lads sporting flicks and designer gear. I had this clipping for quite a while and every so often I’d look at the photographs in admiration and picture MYSELF looking like that.” Riaz Khan author.
Dougal Irvine’s theatre adaptation does an excellent job of taking Kahn’s fascinating book about social acceptance and condensing it into approximately two hours traffic on the stage. The Curve studio audience face each other across the playing space (or is it the terraces?) and Nikolai Foster’s direction is equally exploratory and explosive and the work brings out fantastic performances from his two leading young men, Jay Varsani and Hareet Deol. For both actors this is their professional début. Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual is in a league of its own and scores some brilliant theatrical goals on many levels. The players have certainly learnt how to use the space extremely well and do so with tremendous energy and vive.
There is glory in the work but not the glorification of violence. It has an understanding of that is how young men can be – full of testosterone, boundless energy that needs an outlet and life courses that twist and turn seemingly for the bad but hold the promise of unexpected redemption. In short – dramatic. Then as 1980s football violence is at the core of the story the creative team aren’t afraid of expressing the youthful exuberance, folly and occasional gross misdemeanours of Riaz, his brother Suf and members of the Leicester FC based football hooligans – The Baby Squad.
The work has balance blending plenty of humour, tons of drama, has balls and footballs, and spins the tales of Khan and his family superbly. Both actors take on a variety of nearly one hundred characters with Hareet Deol especially splendid in his quick fire, realistic depictions of characters male and female, skinheads, their mother, their father, prison inmates, football hooligans of all races and more. Jay Varsani captures all of the rambunctiousness of Riaz as a young man plus his doubts and fears.
As the spinning coin of fate deals its blows, its near fatal misses, its joys, its recognition of early minority integration opportunities and the steady rock of the Islam faith for Riaz Khan, we find it landing on heads bang in the centre of a proud Leicester theatre.
Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual is no casual affair but an exciting theatrical event that concludes with positive messages about Khan himself. Change is possible. But, on a greater scale the biggest goal is scored in recognising that today’s football arenas like the King Power Stadium no longer tolerates the racist, violent, threatening, abusive, obscene or provocative behaviour or language. That ideal is the way forward which even a non football goer like this reviewer can fully appreciate. Finally, the East Midlands have a cultural jewel in our proverbial crown in that Leicester is one of the most ethnically integrated cities in the UK. All power to that!
Memoirs of An Asian Football Casual runs at Curve Theatre Studio until Saturday 6th October.
Reviewer: Phil Lowe.
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Phil Lowe is a member of UK Theatre.