Among the Thugs

Next Theatre Company

By Nick Green

No sport has claimed as many casualties in the last century as British football. In America–where the sport is called soccer and has a different set of rules and code of conduct for fans–our understanding of British football must come from satellite broadcasts, World Cup games, and the occasional report of collapsing terraces or stampede-related deaths.

But in the 1980s American journalist Bill Buford set about understanding the culture of aggression and brutality associated with the sport. Grasping the rules and regulations was easy: Buford, who’d lived and worked in London for six years before he ever set foot in a football stadium, was a remarkably quick study. But as his harrowing 1991 account Among the Thugs makes clear, his early interviews with British football enthusiasts offered few insights into the fan’s psyche. It wasn’t until he’d shelved any pretense of objective journalism and joined the ranks of the piss drunk and pissed off that he was able to see the situation with any clarity. And the way he chronicles the simultaneously intoxicating and abhorrent violence–in which he took a distinct voyeuristic interest–only makes Among the Thugs all the more compelling.

Playwright Tom Szentgyorgyi’s adaptation of Buford’s book–being given its world premiere by Next Theatre Company–uses Buford as its narrator and protagonist as scenes from the book are enacted by a cast of ten, most playing multiple roles. But where Buford describes the violence he witnessed down to the smallest detail, Szentgyorgyi never dwells on it. And while Buford’s method serves his account well, Szentgyorgyi’s less-is-more approach is perhaps better suited to the theater, where what occurs offstage can be as powerful in our imaginations as what transpires on it. And when Szentgyorgyi puts the violence onstage–as he does toward the end of the first act, when fans crowd around a young Italian boy and take turns kicking him–it has a gut-wrenching effect.

Excess is never a problem in Szentgyorgyi’s taut script or director Kate Buckley’s deft staging–though Buford has been criticized for it. His participation–he admits to drinking or otherwise consuming everything that was handed to him–calls into question his objectivity. And some felt he’d been taken in by his subjects. British football enthusiast Nick Hornby in the introduction to his memoir Fever Pitch writes that “at least 95 percent of the millions who watch games every year have never hit anyone in their lives.” Hornby’s chronicle of his fascination with the sport, published only a year after Among the Thugs, captures the essence of the fan mentality, but it’s also emblematic of permissive British attitudes toward sports-related violence.

And of course Hornby’s steadfast denial of the violence widely associated with British football was something Buford ran into frequently in his research. It seems unlikely that Buford happened to fall in with the 5 percent of football enthusiasts who were capable not only of fisticuffs but of kicking, knifing, looting, and vandalism.

At any rate, Among the Thugs is an example of first-rate storytelling enhanced by Buford’s involvement in the misadventures he describes. And Next’s fluid production, raw yet nuanced, makes for an engrossing, often riveting evening of theater. Szentgyorgyi–who’s had two of his plays premiered at Next and currently writes for Sports Night–does a good job of streamlining some of the more ponderous aspects of Buford’s book. Perhaps the most unwieldy passage is a lengthy meditation on the nature of crowds drawing on the theories of Mussolini, Hitler, and Freud, among others. Szentgyorgyi simply prunes and recontextualizes it, placing it at the beginning of the second act, where it seems a baptism of sorts as Buford becomes totally immersed in the world of football hooliganism.

Buckley’s action-oriented staging keeps the proceedings moving at a breakneck pace, ensuring an intense, visceral experience. Szentgyorgyi’s bare-bones approach is echoed in Buckley’s choices: light and sound cues have been kept to a minimum, costume changes are performed onstage, and the plain bar stools that line the sides are used for any set pieces not included in Rick Paul’s spartan scenic design.

But the hardest work is done by Buckley’s cast, particularly Christian Kohn, whose bold performance as Buford–the play’s toughest role–propels this production to its heights. Kohn portrays Buford as a dorky, innocent, all-too-eager interloper perhaps more appealing than Buford is in the book–a reading that heightens the contrast with his subjects. Kohn’s performance is all the more remarkable considering that he slipped on a patch of gravel in the theater’s parking lot on opening night and broke his knee. Next considered scrapping the production after that, but despite the physical constraints of a cast, Kohn brings great depth to the role. In fact his injury may make his character more poignant, as this American journalist with a touchy gut and a bum knee struggles for acceptance in a culture of violence that despises weakness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phil Kohlmetz-Hula Photography.