It happens every week, in football grounds all over the world: the motivational team talk. Even so, I doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson in all his illustrious career ever uttered the words, “We were lucky last week, they were pissed and wearing stilettos.” But then Sir Alex wasn’t coaching a hapless five-a-side team struggling to avoid relegation in a lesbian and gay league. No, in Tom Wells’ delightful comedy Jumpers for Goalposts, that joy falls to Viv, a Hull pub landlady who has taken on the task of head coach to the unpromisingly named Barely Athletic. It’s an uphill struggle.
Wells was last at this theatre with The Kitchen Sink, a poignant, funny domestic drama about a Yorkshire family facing daunting life changes. It’s the everyday that he explores again in Jumpers for Goalposts, set entirely in a scruffy changing room. He brings a new twist to the sporting drama and fuses the laddishness of football culture with the particular dangers of being gay (one member of the team refuses to remove his woolly hat during matches because, it turns out, it covers a scar from a recent gay-bashing).
But this is a play that wears its issues lightly: where Wells excels is in detailed and compassionate depiction of people struggling with very recognisable personal crises. Danny, a 22-year-old hoping to get a training qualification through this shambolic team, falls in tongue-tied love with Luke, a chronically shy 19-year-old librarian. Their halting steps towards a relationship are beautifully handled by Jamie Samuel and Philip Duguid-McQuillan. Joe, the team’s “token straight”, and Viv are both still grieving over the death of Julie (Joe’s wife and Viv’s sister). He is despondent; she is angry: neither can talk about it. All the personal journeys intertwine with the fluctuating fortunes of the team, as the play gradually makes its point about mutual support. Like Lee Hall, Wells is not afraid of appearing sentimental: he writes with a brave emotional honesty that proves very moving.
The characters are lovably messy, from Viv (Vivienne Gibbs), who really wanted to coach Lesbian Rovers but was deemed too bossy, to apparently flippant Geoff (Andy Rush). Matt Sutton, very droll as butterfingered goalkeeper Joe, may not stop many balls but he does stop the show with his poignant description of his unromantic first meeting with his wife. James Grieve directs with a deft touch. Back of the net, as I believe they say.