The life of Walter Tull, one of the first black Britons to play professional football and Britain’s first black army officer, is relatively little known, but his time may have come. For the issues raised in Phil Vasili’s Tull – racism, capitalism’s role in conflict, the inattention sometimes paid to the emotional lives of children in care, among others – strike a chord amid the present global and domestic sense of unease.
Even aside from such topicality, Tull’s story is worth telling in itself. Born in 1888, he fought his way through racism and disadvantage to become a star soccer player for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton and an infantry officer in the first world war. Vasili’s play runs chronologically, from the death of his mother when he was six years old, through to his being placed in care, his discovery as a talented footballer and subsequent soccer career, his enlistment in 1914 and his death in the trenches in 1918.
David Thacker – the Octagon’s Olivier award-winning artistic director – puts his faith in his actors to bring this story to life in a production devoid of props or period costume (the cast is clad in neutrally coloured contemporary casual wear). They don’t let him down. The eight-strong ensemble deftly deploys a giddying array of accents and personas to portray a multiplicity of characters each; yet such is the clarity of their characterisations that the audience never loses the plot.
The exception to this morphing between roles is Nathan Ives-Moiba, making a triumphant professional debut as Tull. But it is a role that itself comprises numerous personas – bewildered child, soccer star, lover, soldier – and Ives-Moiba’s outstanding performance is by turns poignant, charming, balletic, dignified, emotional, witty and athletic.
If the play itself feels a little stretched in places – the drawn-out sub-plot involving Tull’s suffragette lover Annie Williams (beautifully realised by Fiona Hampton) might have benefited from some editing down – the energy of the cast and pacy direction carry it along at a brisk trot. It’s hard to single out anyone in this talented ensemble, but particular praise must go to the two actors making their professional debuts, Ives-Moiba and the luminous Anna Tierney (who tackles no fewer than 17 parts in the play). Elsewhere, Marc Small (playing Tull’s father and brother, among others) displays a fine emotional touch and Colin Connor, Kieran Hill, Tristan Brooke and John Branwell keep the momentum up with great comic timing.
Tull has already been cited by War Horse writer Michael Morpurgo as an inspiration for his recent novel A Medal for Leroy and a campaign for him to be posthumously awarded the Military Cross is under way. Vasili’s play will do more to bring this neglected story into the light. In a Britain often troubled by racial tensions and seemingly facing a pared-down history curriculum, adding another black role model to the roster can be no bad thing.
Until March 16, www.octagonbolton.co.uk