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SABRINA Mahfouz wasn't interested in football when she started work on Offside, the play she co-wrote with fellow poet Holly McNish, and which tours to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh next week. Mahfouz didn't really do sport at all, while McNish had been more interested in playing the game than watching it when she was a student, to the extent that she trained as a coach for young people. By the time they dug deep into the history of women's football, which forms the backdrop of the play, they were both very much on the same side.
“The initial idea for the play came from Caroline Bryant, who's the artistic director of Futures Theatre, and who's this massive football fan,” says Mahfouz. “Her daughter plays football, and she was always going on about wanting to make a show about women's football. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it, but as soon as I looked into it, and saw all this stuff about how football had been used as a political tool against women's rights, I knew we had to get that story out.”
That story of Offside focuses on two modern day women trying to make the team of their local women's football side. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to 1881 and 1921, years which marked key moments in a largely hidden history of the sport, in which the figures of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr were key.
Carrie Boustead was a goalkeeper who played for London-based clubs in games in Glasgow, Stirling and Lanarkshire during the 1800s. She was notable for being women's football's first ever black player.
Lily Parr was a professional player with the Preston-based Dick, Kerr and Co team, named after the munitions factory where many of the women on the team worked. Dick, Kerr and Co drew large crowds, including a game at Goodison Park in Liverpool attended by 53,000. Parr scored forty-three goals in her first season, and continued to play after women's football was banned in the UK in 1921. It is here that the history of the sport starts to become really interesting.
“I knew nothing about the F.A. ban beforehand,” says McNish, “but once I started looking into it all it made me really angry. They never said why they did it, and I think there was something really fishy going on. Even before the ban you could see how hard it was for women playing football. In the 1890s you'd get guys running onto the pitch and hassling them, and sometimes the police had to be called. Then the ban happened, and it seemed such an extreme response to it.
“There were other bans as well, like when women were banned from cycling unless they rode side saddle, but with football I think there was a lot of class warfare going on as well, because a lot of the teams were from Scotland and the north of England. To go from 53,000 people watching women's football in Liverpool to women not even being able to go onto the pitch for the next fifty years is pretty shocking.”
Futures Theatre has been putting such issues onstage since the company was founded in 1992 to put women's stories at the centre of the theatrical experience. It was while running a series of poetry workshops with the company that Mahfouz became involved in Offside, with McNish co-opted to bring some of her footballing expertise on board. As female poets who both started out on the performance circuit, it was an inspired pairing.
“I wanted to get the feeling of football's physicality into the writing,” says Mahfouz, “and Hollie's experience of football had a lot of influence on that. Hollie lives in Cambridge and I'm in London, so we'd go back and forth sending each other stuff as we wrote it line by line, and if it became clear that one of us was more interested in writing a specific part of the play, we;'d go away and do it, and then edit it between us.”
Mahfouz has worked extensively in theatre, with solo pieces Dry Ice and One Hour Only both premiering at the Underbelly as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Her short piece, Clean, was seen at the Traverse Theatre as part of its Herald Angel-winning Breakfast Plays season, and an expanded version was later seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring to New York. Mahfouz's next play, Chef, was also seen in Edinburgh, and her more recent work has been produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and Paines Plough. In sharp contrast, Offside is McNish's first foray into theatre.
“It's been quite interesting for me,” she says, “because I've only been to the theatre a few times, so hearing someone else reading my words has been really nice. It's also made me more interested in writing for TV and film. I've always said no to TV so far, but I don't want to leave the character of Lily Parr. I've written loads more poems about her that aren't in the play, and I think she's such an amazing person to do what she did, and for women's football to be banned the way it was had a really negative effect on women's rights.
“The reason I started playing football was because there was a less posh crowd playing it, and I started enjoying it because of its universality. Football is one of the only sports I've played in different countries, and it breaks language barriers in the way music and dancing does. It's not like I watch it or anything, and I can't be bothered to follow a team, but it makes me frustrated that football is still seen as such a male sport, and I think it's a shame that girls get left out of that culture of having a kick-about with their mates.”
As part of her research for Offside, Mahfouz went to watch a few games in which women's teams took part.
“They were really fun,” she says, “and it really helped with the physicalisation again. Looking at the stories of Carrie Boustead and Lily Parr really showed me how whitewashed these things are, and I think it's important to make a bit of noise about these women who were doing all these things.”
As McNish points out, “Offside isn't just a play for people who like football. I hope the people who come to see it will realise what a big thing it is that females are still playing football today. We can get a bit blasé and think that things have become easy, but I think it's important that we remind ourselves about how hard it was for women back then.”
“I'd just like people to have a deeper appreciation of the legacy of football, and women's involvement in the game and the struggles they had to face,” she says. “Women who want to dedicate their life to football still have more of a hard time than they do in any other sport, and that struggle continues today.”
Offside, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 30-April 1.