A RUGBY REDEMPTION
“I’ve known since you were seventeen” says Gareth Thomas’ exasperated team-mate. “When you said you wanted me to be your best man, why do you think we spent a whole afternoon walking up and down Treorchy High Street eating chips and fucking curry sauce? I was giving you time to reconsider…”
Hand on heart, I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy this National Theatre Wales play (with Out of Joint ) about the coming-out of the tremendous Welsh rugby captain, international and 100-cap star athlete Gareth Thomas. Rugby terrifies me, I am lukewarm about verbatim theatre (which this mostly is), and read some pretty h-hum English reviews when its tour began in Wales. And, after one particularly gruelling Edinburgh Fringe, I issued a personal fatwa against plays about young men discovering their sexuality: enough, already!
But Robin Soans’ piece is different. Thomas’ self-doubt and deceit was particularly painful, alpha-male team sport being a toxically tough world for gay men (remember poor Justin Fashanu, who died, and Robbie Rogers who felt he should retire rather than play on as gay.) It is also different because private anguish and shame at twenty years of lies and fear is interwoven with his hometown’s travails. Bridgend, whose beating heart was in hard manual work, family, community and rugby, was badly knocked about by the decline of the mines (there’s a verbose explanation from that now-affluent Brussels fatcat, Neil Kinnock). It also suffered a strange, heartbreaking series of teenage suicides
So we have Thomas’ story and his parents’ and teammates’ remarks on being told: we get extraordinary facts like the way the Sun had chapter-and-verse proof of gay sauna visits and the rest in 2001, the day of an International, but for some mysterious reason – compassion? – never ran it even after Wales went down 44-15 to England and they could have crowed as homophobically as they liked. Six months later, still trying to “melt away his gayness”, Thomas disastrously married a childhood sweetheart; their scenes together are agonizing.
But alongside his tale run the problems of two ordinary teenage girls, Meryl whose angry jobless father brutalizes her mother and kills himself; and her friend, Darcey. Who suffers from schizophrenic delusions and whose near-suicide coincides with that of the rugby star.
Under deft direction from Max Stafford-Clark, each of the six players at times speaks Gareth Thomas’ words , then with clarity reverts to their own persona (or one of several, including a nervous reporter ). Rhys ap William is particularly fine as the player, and Lauren Roberts’ Darcey is irresistible: she plays it big, slobbish, lairy, manically grinning and heartbreakingly at sea in her terrifying mental world.
It was a quietish matinee I caught, but the intensity, deep goodwill and the stark honesty of the piece made it feel greater than the sum of its parts. The aftermath of coming-out is particularly striking in its refusal to embrace the feelgood sentimentality of films like PRIDE. Thomas admits that the shame of having lied for so long lingered on, that some on the terraces still shout hateful epithets, that the new “out” career involves nonsesne like panto in Wrexham, giving his name to scented candles and enduring a coming-out party run by London PRs with no proper food fit for rugby friends.
But it’s out, it’s open, and it never truly mattered. The honesty itself buoys him up, and the other characters find their equilibrium too, sing a verse of Bread of Heaven (with the proper “Jehovah” not the mimsy C of E “Redeemer” word). In a final scene they train with him and we cheer the curtain-call scrum. Loved it. Still too scared to watch the Six Nations, though.
Box Office: http://www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk to 11 April
then touring England till 20 June (reaches Arcola London 20 May)\