Argentina and France may have just played the most thrilling World Cup final in living memory, but earlier this year another football-adjacent clash had people gripped for very different reasons: Coleen Rooney (wife of former England and Manchester United great Wayne) and Rebekah Vardy (whose husband, Jamie, is the striker who spearheaded Leicester City’s miraculous 2015-16 Premier League title triumph) contested a bitter High Court libel battle in what was dubbed “The Wagatha Christie Trial.”
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Now, that legal tussle has moved from the Royal Courts of Justice to London’s West End stage, bringing the trial to life and analyzing the hysterical reaction when the subjects of the back and front pages of the tabloids clash in such spectacular fashion. “Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial,” written by Liv Hennessy and directed by Lisa Spirling and starring Laura Dos Santos and Lucy May Barker as the respective titular characters, is playing at Wyndham’s Theater until Jan. 10 before a second run at the Ambassadors Theater begins in April.
There are occasionally theatrical productions that deal in some way with football — with Patrick Marber’s “The Red Lion,” opera production “Gods of the Game” and the stage musical version of hit movie “Bend It Like Beckham” being examples of recent years . But “Vardy v Rooney” is different because it examines the public’s fascination with “WAGs” (the acronym meaning “wives and girlfriends” that was first widely applied to the partners of England footballers during the 2006 World Cup) and the fame which defines their lives.
At 10:29 am on Oct. 9, 2019, Coleen Rooney posted an Instagram and accompanying Twitter post, revealing her amateur sleuth work in uncovering the alleged miscreant who had been leaking personal information about Rooney and her family to The Sun newspaper. Rooney had set up her own investigation, in which she posted fake stories on her Instagram account that were visible to only one of her followers, and waited to see whether those stories appeared in the tabloids. When she had finished her probe, Rooney announced to the world that the subject of the sting operation had been “………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.“
This has been a burden in my life for a few years now and finally I have got to the bottom of it…… pic.twitter.com/0YqJAoXuK1
— Coleen Rooney (@ColeenRoo) October 9, 2019
The tweet proved to be mightier than the sword; the internet went wild. Twitter was awash with content. Meme after meme appeared, spreading via the hashtag “#wagathachristie” (despite the very first tweet making the pun containing a typo.) Of course, as with everything on social media, for every meme engaging in some goodhearted banter there was a heinous comment at the expense of the then-pregnant Vardy.
On June 23, 2020, eight months after Rooney’s explosive post, Vardy sued Rooney for £1 million in a High Court libel suit. Between November 2020 and May 2021, the pair were in and out of court in London, hashing out the initial stages of the libel action. Attempts at out-of-court mediation had broken down, which meant the case was barreling towards the most high-profile — and most expensive — celebrity trial in British history.
Like all good whodunnits, we got our final showdown in the courtroom; on May 10, 2022, Vardy and Rooney came face to face in court as their libel trial kicked off at the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand in London before Mrs. Justice Steyn. And, spoiler alert, it was absolutely wild. On the first day alone Vardy was kept from the witness stand until 4 pm while the court clarified the specifics of how Instagram functions. When she did arrive on the stand, she was immediately questioned on a previous tabloid article in which she had described a certain part of pop singer Peter Andre’s anatomy as like “a miniature chipolata.”
Things then took an even more farcical turn when the court heard how Vardy’s agent, Caroline Watt — who was not called as a witness in the trial after the court was told she was in a “fragile state” and not fit to take the stand — had lost a mobile phone with potentially crucial evidence when it, as Rooney’s barrister told the court, “accidentally slipped out of her hand overboard on a boat in the North Sea.”
The trial was a postmodern mishmash of high and low culture, with High Court judges taking a crash course in the minutiae of Instagram’s logistics and etiquette, while bewigged and plummy-accented barristers questioned Vardy on the appendages of C-list celebrities.
What unfolded over the course of the seven-day trial would end up being perfect fodder for the upper-class world of London’s West End theatre. And after Vardy lost the case and was ordered to pay up to £1.5 million of Rooney’s legal costs when Judge Steyn ruled that Rooney had proven her allegation was “substantially true,” that’s exactly what happened.
“Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial” is a verbatim piece: all the dialogue is direct quotes from the transcript of the legal trial, which is very different from the usual theatrical experience.
The pre-performance air bristled with anticipation as the audience entered the theater to hear atmospheric audio of football fans chanting and jeering. On stage, the set comprises a minimalist representation of a courtroom and the boards are covered with astroturf, complete with the markings of a football pitch.
The action of the trial is held together by two commentators, played by Nathan McMullen and Sharan Phull, who breathlessly guide us through the action, with lots of in-jokes and metaphors for the soccer-literate. They tell us we’ll be getting 90 minutes of end-to-end action — although, like many of the matches with loads of additional stoppage time at the 2022 World Cup, the play is a bit longer than that. It’s a surreal experience for a football fan to hear Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater namechecked on a West End stage.
There seemed a snobbish impulse from the audience to laugh at Rooney’s Liverpool accent, composedly performed by the brilliant Dos Santos, or when the superb Barker’s Vardy doesn’t understand a reference to Davey Jones’ locker [in a reference to the whereabouts of her agent’s phone]. But the strength of the play is that it makes the audience challenge their preconceptions, as director Spirling intended.
“I was adamant that I was not interested in punching down on these women,” Spirling told ESPN. “They … live in extraordinary circumstances. Among the things that me and [writer] Liv were really impressed about was their ability to hold their own on a witness stand. Coleen especially just blows them out of the water, and you realize how intelligent and diligent they are.”
What many football fans have in common with the wider public is an obsession with “WAG” culture. Salacious gossip has always been like kryptonite to tabloid-reading Brits and this case feels uniquely linked to that culture. It feels like two women screaming at each other in a bar with the rest of the patrons looking on; people might say “that’s terrible, they should stop fighting” but they will all still grab the popcorn and revel in the scene. Spirling believes it’s because we take comfort in “watching something we know on stage.”
And you can see that “Vardy v Rooney” fits into a lineage of British plays that, as Spirling puts it, “are in conversation with our times.” It’s a tradition that goes right back to William Shakespeare; reflecting on the issues of the day and encouraging the audience to engage in an almost pantomime manner — there would have been jeers and boos at the thinly veiled references to James I as “Macbeth” was staged for the first time. “Vardy v Rooney” is an addition to the long history of theater reflecting our world back at us, as well as feeding the innate human desire for gossip.
But, in this case, the public should remember that they have a duty of care to these women. Yes, it can be argued that they brought it on themselves, or that it is the price of fame and wealth, but it also seems that Vardy and Rooney have learned to take back some control over a media that constantly tries to rip it away from them. Spirling asks this question herself: “Why do people who claim to want privacy have such a crazy social media life? I guess it’s about controlling your own narrative. To take something away from the media and tabloids that’s ruined their lives. That feels very human .”
England manager Gareth Southgate touched on this with his assertion earlier this year that “WAGs” is a “disrespectful term.” During the trial, Rooney urged the court not to use the term several times, suggesting that the patience of influential figures within the game is running thin on this gratuitous obsession.
So what’s next for the story of the Wagatha Christie story? Rooney has signed up for a documentary about the trial for Disney+, while the BBC has commissioned a rival show and Channel 4 last week broadcast a two-part dramatization, “Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama,” featuring Natalia Tena (aka Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter movies) as Vardy, “This Is England” star Chanel Cresswell as Rooney and Michael Sheen as Rooney’s barrister, David Sherborne.
Like the case it is based on, the play is very much a product of its time, and Spirling believes that we are unlikely to see anything of its kind again in the future.
“This trial will probably never happen again because we’re in a moment which is the Wild West of social media,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened 10 years ago, because we didn’t have Instagram and Twitter the way we do now, and in 10 years’ time the legislation will be in place that … if you make a comment on social media you can be sued for it.”