On Saturday (4 June) I spent the evening at the Union Theatre in Southwark. Hang on in there, fellow Hammers, this is relevant … For twenty years the Union has operated in an old, crumbling, dank environment that allows it no room to expand its ambitions. Every show is a sell-out - wonderfully atmospheric but, for the management at least, also frustrating, in equal measure. I have seen some of the most exciting, dramatic, moving theatre of my life in that tatty old room. The new production, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, is the last ever show in the current premises. This summer, the Union will move, quite literally, across the road — about 60 yards. The new premises will be bigger, more comfortable, more accessible…
Well, you’ll have spotted the parallel and you won’t be surprised to learn that, while everyone at the Union is naturally excited about the move, there is an unmistakable pall of sadness at the place. Will the atmosphere be the same, we mused over our interval bottles of Beck’s? Will we see the same, familiar, reassuring faces? Will something special, intangible, irreplaceable, be lost forever, in the name of “progress”? Yes, the old building has seen better days and who can argue with progress - but magic happened here.
EVERYTHING MUST GO
Earlier the same day I attended a far more sombre — and much less edifying — experience, as fittings from the Boleyn Ground were flogged off by professional auctioneers, from a temporary structure set up on the pitch. Corner flags, illuminated signs, the 60-feet long images of Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking from the two ends of the West Stand, off they were flogged, each to the highest bidder.
Only the West Stand was open, with a couple of forlorn snack bars offering pies and hot drinks for the few dozen hardy souls who attended in person. Needless to say, honouring tradition, there was no service whatsoever on the District Line or the Metropolitan and City Line and Fenchurch Street station was closed for the day. I’m not going to lie: this was a miserable experience. The gents was in an appalling state, the pitch had taken a hammering and the ghosts had taken over.
NO WARMTH, NO CHARM
The auction itself was little short of grotesque. The prices were extravagant (some of the John Lyall gates were withdrawn because insufficient thousands of pounds were bid) — even before the 16 per cent seller’s premium was added, with 20 per cent VAT then piled onto the grand total. The trappings of a great club were indiscriminately distributed, before our eyes, to the highest bidder. It seemed to me that at least half the 200 or so items went to just a tiny handful of people.
There was no warmth on display, no charm — and, needless to say, no presence at all from anyone who had ever meaningfully represented the club, either on or off the pitch. It was all about money; a microcosm of everything that concerns so many people about the state of our national sport.
Will I remain an Iron? Of course. Have I bought my season ticket for the Olympic Stadium? Of course I have. Did I bid on anything? No way! This is more than foolish, naive nostalgia though. As we move forward, let us never forget or neglect our heritage, for without it we are nothing. The trinkets that were auctioned off on Saturday were symbols of that heritage, but it’s the spirit that counts.
And what of the Union Theatre? Their first show in their new space will be a revival of one of their finest productions of recent years - The Fix - and Little Voice proved to be the perfect send-off, with a superbly talented cast breathing new, fresh and invigorating life into a much-loved classic. It wasn’t quite Winston Reid nodding past David de Gea in the 80th minute, but it was the perfect send-off to a theatre of dreams; and they seem to be taking the fittings with them.