English Theatre Milan is on a roll. Continuing its mini-season of plays in English, with Rose Reilly, Footballer, the project scored big and won over the audience at the Teatro Gerolamo in P.za Beccaria with a surprising – and at times shocking – story of one woman’s struggle against pig-headed patriarchy and intransigence to finally achieve her dream.
The one-act play, written by Lorna Martin (co-creator of TV comedy series Women on the Verge) and directed by Maureen Carr (Still Game, Riff-Raff), features Christina Strachan in the role of Rose Reilly, whose achievements in women’s football are virtually unmatched. From an early age, Rose’s only desire was to play the beautiful game (as Pele termed it). Severely punished at school, beaten at home and discouraged from daring to believe she could take part in a game that is “not for girls”, Rose refused to give up her passion.
Incredibly, she was banned for life from playing in her native country of Scotland. Instead, she moved to the continent, starting in France, where she was signed at half-time in her trial match and became a professional footballer. She subsequently moved to Italy, where she won eight league titles, four Italian Cups and was twice crowned a “golden boot” winner. Rose felt particularly honoured to be able to play in Milan, where at just eighteen she signed with the women’s team of AC Milan, as well as representing Italy internationally.
Christina Strachan in Rose Reilly, Footballer at the Teatro Gerolamo in P.za Beccaria, Milan, 2022
The most moving and memorable moments of the play relate mainly to Rose’s early years in Scotland. These are vividly brought to life in Strachan’s performance. The beatings she received as a girl had a traumatic effect on her and she quickly learnt that showing emotion was a weakness. Rose went to a local barber’s and persuaded him to give her a short back and sides so she would blend more easily into the boy’s team (where she played as “Ross”). Her mum, unsurprisingly, went spare and confronted the barber, accusing him of mutilating her daughter. When Rose finally made the move to Europe with a fellow player her suitcase burst open on the way to the plane. Rose’s father sprang forward and whipped off his belt to secure it: it was a mute expression of love that Rose recalled when she was at his bedside for their final moments together. Similarly, when Rose, by then a professional playing in Europe, got the dreaded call from Scotland, she flew home to be with her mother, who actually hung on for another nine years.
Christina’s solo performance takes place in a stylised changing room, where football shirts from Rose’s various clubs and international matches hang on pegs. Strachan uses these shirts to tell Rose’s story as she moves from Scotland to Europe, finally playing for the Azzurri (although quite how she ended up in the Italian national team is something of a puzzle). Played with verve and infectious enthusiasm for her subject, Strachan brings the character of Rose to life and articulates her battles, especially those with the Scottish FA, with great passion and humour.
Rose Reilly and Christina Strachan / Photo Robert Dennis
Rose Reilly herself joined Christina Strachan on stage at the end of the play and underlined how her main aim in life now is to encourage young girls to take up the game. (The Rose Reilly Sports Centre in her home town of Stewarton was named in her honour and recognises her major achievements in women’s football, as does her MBE.) Rose also spoke before the play about her experiences of life both in Scotland and Italy, where she feels equally at home. Although things are considerably better for young female players now than in her day, she feels there is still a long way to go for the women’s game to achieve equal status with the men’s.
Rose’s story is moving, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. Christina Strachan and the production team have done a marvellous job in bringing the story of Rose’s life to the stage and there is also a film project in the offing, led by Chris Young, best known as the producer of The Inbetweeners.
Easy Milano contributor Robert Denis with Rose Reilly
Article by Robert Dennis, EasyMilano
Robert Dennis is a writer and Business English teacher based in Milan. He has been teaching for other 30 years both in the UK and in Italy. A long-time collaborator with John Peter Sloan, Robert published Business English (Gribaudo) in 2020. The book was launched with “Il Sole 24 Ore” and sold in newsstands throughout Italy. Robert has a website for people who want to learn Business English: Pay As You Learn.com. The site features keywords and phrases, audio and exercises to help professionals improve their language skills. A graduate in English from Oxford University, Robert is also a translator and a “buongustaio” who loves Italian food!