one man and his trio

Kyll Thomas-Cole, left, Lori Hopkins, Paul Hunter and Heather Lai with Paul's puppet dad. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Would You Bet Against Us?

Birmingham Rep Door


Football. It generates passions that no love for woman nor man can ever match, it leaves emotions lost in the deepest, darkest despair or riding high, far above the clouds – agony or ecstasy, at least until the next Saturday of hope dawns.

Before telly set the rules, Saturday afternoon, 3pm, was the moment when hopes and dreams soared in expectation and soaring expectation is the journey we join in Would You Bet Against Us?

Now, I must be honest, the show does have a certain novelty in that it must be the world’s first one man show to have a cast of four, although Paul Hunter, the one man bit, was at pains to point out that the other three were sort of helpers, two being in fact co-producers.

Heather Lai being the help, and pianist, while Kyll Thomas-Cole and Lori Hopkins were from some obscure co-producing Munich puppet theatre no one, including I suspect, Kyll and Lori, has heard of, at least that’s what we were told . . . and, to be honest, that’s something we would bet against!

At least the puppet bit was true though, with some lovely puppets of Paul’s mum and dad, designed by Lyndie Wright, and Lori, who is actually a puppeteer, and Kyll brought the puppets to life quite beautifully.

But back to the one man four hander . . . and football with its highs and . . . more often lows. The highs shine like beacons though; to Villa fans 26 May 1982 is as high as it gets, a date seared into the collective memory of Villans the world over, the day a Peter Withe goal in the Stadion Feijenoord in Rotterdam defeated German giants Bayern Munich and lifted the European Cup for the rank outsider Brummie underdogs from Aston.

drama school

Now is the winter of our discontent or how to not get into drama school with Paul Hunter

They had won the old first division against all the odds the previous year, at a time when becoming league champions was the only means of entry into the competition, none of this coming fourth stuff or winning the Europa League.

Villa’s last top division title, incidentally, had been in the 1909-10 season. That had been their sixth title, a record at the time, unfortunately for the fans, the celebrations of that seem to have lasted 72 years.

Would You Bet Against Us? is written and performed by Villa fan Paul Hunter about his journey to that moment 40 years ago this week when his team reached the pinnacle of club football, and the result is a remarkable piece of theatre.

It is part stand up, part documentary(ish), part slapstick and part pathos, with even a sad and moving family moment turned into an affectionate piece of comedy, a laugh or cry moment.

This is real immersive theatre where the only fourth wall is the one at the back of the room, the one holding the roof up. Hunter talks to us, involves us, jokes with us, he is not acting out his story in a play, he is telling us like mates in the pub, the little scenes and sketches merely adding visual dressing to the tale.

The telling is a laugh a minute rise through Hunter’s family, his school and a corporal punishment exponent posing as a geography teacher, his applications to drama school with a Brummie Richard III, his father’s heart attack and his first visit to Villa Park.

There is even the fact his son, Dexter, is the only member of his family, a line going back to the dawn of time, or at least the formation of the Football League, who is not a Villa fan. He didn’t even believe Villa had actually won the European Cup! To be fair he was born and goes to school just round the corner from Spurs - but is that really any kind of excuse?


What's a football story without an action replay . . . on a stick . . .

The whole thing is one huge laugh, with wit, asides and commendable invention, and, despite the sad return of violence on the terraces, the droll humour of fans shines through, such as the Villa fans’ chant to Newcastle fans, “Have you ever had a salad in your life” which gave us a moment of sing along.

Hunter, who is the founder and artistic director of  the acclaimed Told by an Idiot, also brings an element of glorious daftness as we show action replays of Villa’s European matches using the three people, the three who are just helping out in the one man show remember, as the players, with the ball on the end of a stick . . . don’t ask.

We have interviews with the manager, dour Ron Saunders who resigned and Tony Barton who took over, a word too from Dennis Mortimer the skipper, and with Nigel Spink, the goalie who settled down in comfort on the bench to watch the final.

It was a bit of a shock for him when he ended up playing, and playing a blinder, when Jimmy Rimmer was injured after nine minutes. It was only his second appearance in five years.

There are the talks with his dad, his mum, appearances at drama school, in hospital, school, a whole world of the young Paul and his football family. There is no interval, but, to continue the footy theme, we do get a half time team talk and the three helpers, who are not cast, do get a the traditional orange segment.

Fans of the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal . . . live in expectation, fans of the rest, the West Hams, the Southamptons . . . and the Villas, live more in hope and Hunter brings that element of optimism against reality to his story.

And on that day, 40 years ago, hope and reality combined to create a moment Villa fans, even those yet to be born in 1982, will never forget. All remembered in a warm, funny and lovely piece of theatre which can be appreciated even if you are not a football fan . . . even Blues’ fans could enjoy it. It is a celebration not just of football, not just of Villa, but of life with all its ups and downs, hopes and dreams.

The Told by an Idiot production, co-produced by Birmingham Rep (who are not from Munich and actually do exist), will be celebrating the 1982 final to 04-06-22. Villa fans, meanwhile, will celebrate it for ever.

Roger Clarke


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