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A laugh out loud cry of despair.

You Really Couldn't Make It Up at Live Theatre until July 10 For every Newcastle United supporter, this would be a really, really funny play - if it were about Sunderland.

Four of the North East's best actors play United fans. They (for those not savvy with Tyneside football etiquette) are those kept in the dark and fed on... well, whatever it is mushrooms like.

Penned by avid Newcastle fans Michael Chaplin and son Tom, it is, on one level, a cry of exasperation and despair. On another level, it is the expertly crafted story of the highs and lows of United's recent past.

Cue ironic laughter. For a relegated club with an all but empty trophy cabinet, a reluctant owner, no manager and a lemony away strip seemingly designed to deter any player still harbouring a residual desire to kiss the badge, highs are in short supply.

It is clever because it fills in the gaps left by the news media in a way that only theatre and film can.

David Hare did a similar job a few years ago in The Permanent Way, gathering copious witness evidence for a damning indictment of our seemingly accident-prone railway system.

Our 'fans' are armed with written evidence of the club's predicament from all sorts of people with a vested interest - an ex-captain, for instance, and lots and lots of journalists telling us stuff they never put in the papers.

Legislation and the convention of 'off the record' briefings - plus the ever-present fear of a banning - mitigate against the harsh truth emerging in many cases.

A notable exception came courtesy of one Joe Kinnear. Plucked from the nether world of football obscurity, Kevin Keegan's surprise replacement as Newcastle manager unleashed an x-rated fusillade against the media and then, for good measure, declared it was not, after all, off the record.

Happy sports journos duly filed reports that were 95% asterisk. You really couldn't make it up Here - and I assume the lawyers have been through this stuff - the gloves and the asterisks are off. The fans, in the form of our noble four, have their say. And they get to play the protagonists.

Davie Nellist and his belly are great as Mike Ashley, learning the hard way that billionaire status is a fragile thing in football - and that Geordies really don't like Dennis Wise.

Bill Fellows has Keegan's thin skin to a tee, flinching when Laura Norton, as Ashley's Cockney PA, requests an autograph - "for my mum".

And then there's Chris Connel's fantastic Shearer, the laconic hard man, the Clint-style gunslinger of Darras Hall. "Yip," he grunts, laconically, as his mobile phone goes off with its chirpy Match Of The Day ring tone.

Already updated once, this play could run and run - and run. I would have laughed until I cried -- but I just cut out the middle man. Best thing - the interval footage which shows Newcastle players of old. Scoring goals! Get that!! DAVID WHETSTONE

CAPTION(S):

LACONIC Chris Connel as Alan Shearer. LAUGHTER AND TEARS Left, Davie Nellist and Laura Norton in You Really Couldn't, and above, Bill Fellows as Kevin Keegan.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 30, 2009
Words:521
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