Tom Wells’ bittersweet family comedy The Kitchen Sink was widely acclaimed at London’s Bush Theatre in late 2011. I was unpersuaded. However, what I thought then was modesty of ambition and achievement is now revealed as a deliberate strategy of understatement. Wells likes to focus on people who are “ordinary” not just for dramatic purposes, but ordinary even on the scale of real-world ordinariness. The most elevated male character here is a British Gas repair man. His football team captain and sister-in-law runs a pub; his team-mates are a busker, a librarian’s assistant and a lad on a training scheme.
The team is a Sunday five-a-side squad in Hull (also the setting of The Kitchen Sink). But Wells immediately deflates the laddish sport culture by locating the side, self-mockingly named Barely Athletic, in a lesbian and gay league. The gas fitter’s shirt bears the legend “Token Straight”, and captain Viv remarks of their victory over Tranny United: “We were lucky last week, they were pissed and wearing stilettos.”
Everyone has their low-key personal journey: Joe to get over a bereavement; Viv to gain validation by coaching the team to win one of the trophies she herself has bought for the top three teams in the four-team league; Beardy Geoff to find the right song for his audition for a main stage slot at Hull Pride; but most of all, the tentative love story between trainee and assistant coach Danny and phenomenally shy Luke from the library. The latter part is written by Wells and played by Philip Duguid-McQuillan with a self-deprecating banality so endearing that if Danny doesn’t hurry up and snog Luke you may simply jump up there and take him home yourself.
This 90-minute piece (played straight through; surely it should be 45 minutes each way?) contains much that is unobtrusively beautiful. It is unashamed of its big heart and yet persistently refuses to be at all grandiose – and is all the more winning for it. It even boasts the recorded voice of BBC Radio’s James Alexander Gordon reading out the results before each scene: “Lesbian Rovers, five; Barely Athletic, nil.” James Grieve’s Paines Plough production visits co-producers Hull Truck Theatre in late summer, then tours. If there’s any justice, it will never walk alone.