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January 20, 2014 5:41 pm
Timing is crucial in football and John Donnelly could not have timed his run better for this excellent new play. Former professional footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger recently came out, reminding us that no one currently playing in the four divisions of the English league is openly gay. Donnelly’s drama explores the culture that might help to explain that, but it is not a one-issue play – rather it depicts, with wit and spark, the bizarre dislocation between celebrity lifestyle and normality. It is a Faustian tale with a personal tragedy at its heart.
Donnelly, neatly, keeps his focus tight. The play rolls forward in three scenes, each in a different anonymous hotel room, the relative luxury of the room suggesting the progress of the central character, Jason (superbly played by Russell Tovey). We first meet him, aged 17, on the eve of his first-team debut, cavorting round his shared Bulgarian hotel room with his team-mate Ade. Fit, sharp, full of adrenaline and testosterone, the two vault over their single beds, trade insults and playful punches and dance around the elephant in the room – their increasing mutual attraction – with the sort of elegant footwork they hope to display on the pitch the following day. Donnelly’s writing is precise and revealing, shifting from crude banter to sudden tenderness, and John Tiffany’s blistering production matches this step for step: the fizzing energy of the two lads’ horseplay is infectious, but also conveys how hard it would be to reveal anything fragile – sexuality, depression – in such a bullish environment.
Scene two sees a now-successful Jason entertaining a table dancer (Lisa McGrillis). The plot twists and turns until we realise the lengths Jason is prepared to go to protect his lucrative image as a sexy, heterosexual, superstar footballer. By the third scene, that steely drive has warped into something more damaging and monstrous. Jason, now 29, invites Ade (who gave up on the football career) to his luxurious hotel suite. High on prescription drugs and vodka, he wrecks the room and tries to conscript Ade (Gary Carr, wise and watchful) to his way of life.
The play takes a few too many touches, but it still fires home impressively. And Tovey’s magnificent, volatile performance shows how the very drive and swagger that worked for Jason in his youth serves him ill in the long run, leaving him hollowed out and emotionally marooned. A timely play about goals, in more ways than one.
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