Photo by: Claudia Marinaro Photo by: Claudia Marinaro

Review: Fever Pitch the Opera at the Union Chapel

Written for Everything Theatre

I struggle to decide which topic I know less about: opera or football. So I definitely felt like I was going in at the deep end, when I arrived at the Union Chapel for the opening night of Fever Pitch the Opera, by local company Highbury Opera Theatre. The show is adapted from the book of the same title by Nick Hornby, who is well known for immortalising the Highbury and Islington area in his works (see also About a Boy and Slam, for example). Fever Pitch follows main character Gooner, from his first introduction to professional football as a young boy, through the ups and downs in both his own and Arsenal’s fortunes.

This new opera, composed and conducted by HOT artistic director Scott Stroman, is rather different from a Carmen or a La Bohème you might get served up at ENO or the Royal Opera House. For starters, it includes lots of football chants; if you believe in distinguishing between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, surely this is the mash up to end them all. The cast are good, although the difference between the pros who are tackling the lead roles and the community chorus is rather stark. The singing is usually easily intelligible, which is no mean feat in the cavernous space of the Union Chapel. The young chorus, which consists of local children and teenagers aged between 9 and 16, is a charming addition to the cast and shows off some promising talents.

However, even though the project is certainly very commendable for its ingenuity, there are a couple of flaws as well. I’m sorry, but as a non-football fan (and I suspect there were a fair few of those in the audience), someone really needs to explain to me how a person comes to love a club so deeply that they end up in a psychiatrist’s office over it. This side of the story is left largely unexplained, as we race through a series of biographical events like university, jobs and relationships. Except for the final scene, the show also lacks the excitement of a proper game of football. Even in my admittedly limited experience, a match can be joyful, or nail-bitingly tense, or both. It would have been nice if a little more of that had rubbed off on this tribute to the beautiful game.   

In the end, Fever Pitch the Opera is a bit of a strange thing: an opera, about football, being performed in a church. (I’ll let you make of that last bit what you will…) Then again, I guess the subject itself is not all that important here; while much of the cast did not manage to convince me of their love for Arsenal, they certainly loved what they were doing, and that enthusiasm counts for a lot. I take my hat off to Stroman and co. for managing to achieve that holy grail of bringing opera closer to home, both literally and figuratively in this case. It might not have been as good as a night at the Royal Opera, but it was a lot more fun.

This show has now completed its run at the Union Chapel