The Enduring Appeal of ‘Wagatha,’ Now on Stage and Screen

With its stage transformed into a green soccer pitch, “Vardy v. Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial” at Wyndham’s Theater in London last November promised its nearly sold-out audience a game, and the two women onstage were both trying to score a goal.

But as two pundits ooh’ed and aah’ed from the sidelines, the actresses sparring were not playing soccer stars but the women married to them, caught at the center of an Instagram feud turned high-profile libel case that captured the British public’s attention last May and peeled back the curtain hiding the machinations of British celebrity and the glitzy world of English soccer.

“I see it as a comedy of manners,” said Liv Hennessy, the writer of the play, which returns to the West End on Thursday at the Ambassadors Theater. “It’s a theatrical way for us to look at the way people behave in our current society.”

The play is just one recent retelling of the real-life case that became known as the “Wagatha Christie” trial, in which Rebekah Vardy, the wife of the Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, sued Coleen Rooney, the wife of the former Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, for defamation. The catalyst: Rooney’s accusation, on Twitter, that Vardy had leaked her personal information to the British press.

The wives and girlfriends of soccer players — commonly known in Britain by the acronym WAGs — have long been followed by tabloids, but Rooney’s post caused an online furor. Its escalation into the legal realm led to breathless coverage, drawing in powerhouse lawyers and unearthing revelations about both women’s personal lives.

The legal side of the long-running saga came to an end last July, with the High Court ruling against Vardy, saying that the reputational damage from the scandal was not libel and ordering Vardy to pay almost all of Rooney’s legal costs, which amounted to about £1.7 million, or $1.9 million.

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But the case’s power as a story has lived on, with production companies, documentary makers, podcasters and journalists finding the unfolding trial and its cast of characters just too irresistible not to dissect, all helped by the availability of the weeklong case’s court transcripts.

It’s the old adage of: You can’t write this,” said Thomas Popay, the creative director of Chalkboard TV, which produced a two-part dramatization, “Vardy v. Rooney: A Courtroom Drama,” that aired on Channel 4 in Britain last December. “We literally didn’t. We took the transcripts and recreated them.”

Alongside the West End play and Channel 4 show, offerings for followers of the feud include a BBC podcast called “It’s … Wagatha Christie” and the Discovery+ documentary “Vardy vs Rooney: The Wagatha Trial.” Rooney has signed a Disney+ deal for a three-part documentary looking at the events leading up to the trial, and the saga is reportedly being considered for a retelling as part of the series “A Very British Scandal.”

Rebekah Vardy, left, lost her defamation case against Coleen Rooney, right, in London’s High Court last year. Rooney described how she concocted a sting operation to reveal the betrayer.Credit…Daniel Leal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“All of us can relate to the idea of being betrayed — especially betrayed by someone who we trusted,” Popay said. “And on Vardy’s side — we can all relate to not being believed.”

In her 2019 social media post, Rooney described how she concocted a sting operation to reveal the betrayer by posting false stories that were visible to a single account — Vardy’s — to test if they would turn up in The Sun, a London tabloid.

The popularity of the post led to Rooney being nicknamed “Wagatha Christie” — a portmanteau of WAG and Agatha Christie, the mystery writer — for her detective work. Vardy quickly denied she was the leaker and sued Rooney for defaming her.

“We are absolutely interested in people’s misfortunes and what goes on in celebrity lives,” said Adrian Bingham, a professor of modern British history at the University of Sheffield who has studied media and gender issues. The women’s involvement with the soccer world gave their dispute resonance with a wider audience, he added, while the legal case gave the non-tabloid media a legitimate reason to cover it. Producers of the adaptations say they have asked their own lawyers to look over scripts, lest they find themselves accused of defamation.

The court transcript itself had moments and revelations that many say were ripe for re-enactment: a phone with key evidence in the form of WhatsApp messages, apparently lost to the bottom of the North Sea; lawyers in wigs formally reading out text messages from the women, some containing profanities; Vardy’s tears on the witness stand after cross-examination by David Sherborne, Rooney’s lawyer.

“It was positively Shakespearean in terms of how it went down,” said Popay. “We decided the best thing to do and the most accurate thing to do was to completely recreate the trial by using the court transcripts verbatim.” His company’s show, which was commissioned in May during the trial and aired in December, drew 1.5 million viewers.

In the Channel 4 show “Vardy v. Rooney: A Courtroom Drama,” Vardy is played by Natalia Tena, seen here arriving at court.Credit…Channel 4

Hennessy, the writer of the West End play, also relied heavily on the court transcripts, but took liberties by leaning into the soccer world, structuring the play like a game itself. Reading the transcripts, she said she was struck by the humanity of the two women, who have both been criticized (Vardy has said that people made abusive threats toward her and her unborn baby following that fateful post, while the trial laid bare tensions in Rooney’s marriage and her experience growing up with fame).

“It does ask how complicit we are in creating public figures, and tearing them down when they don’t meet our standards,” Hennessy said.

Even at a rehearsal in late March, before the play’s official return, it was clear the trial continued to intrigue and perplex even the cast members. During a pivotal scene in which Rooney is grilled by Vardy’s lawyer on precisely why she made the fateful decision to share the feud with the world, the actors broke character to pose their own burning questions: Was that decision one of a calculating woman, or a woman at a breaking point? Why had she not privately confronted Vardy? And what did it feel like to live, as they imagined Rooney did, in a world where one’s image could become a public commodity?

Though celebrity gossip can be easy to dismiss as frivolous, the two opponents in the trial were both women from working-class backgrounds who laid out one aspirational pathway for others like them, said Rebecca Twomey, an entertainment correspondent who has covered both women closely.

“We like to put people on pedestals — and bring them down,” she said, adding that many people enjoyed a modern-day pantomime. “You might think they’re airhead WAGs, but these are two sharp, intelligent women.”

Still, the enduring appeal of the high drama of “Wagatha Christie” is also simple, Professor Bingham said.

“The reason people are telling it is not because it’s insightful,” he added. “It’s because it’s a great story — with great lines.”

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