“This isn’t about gay rights, this is about self respect”
Can culture capture society at a tipping point? Looking at theatrical representations of football in London, the Bush, the Royal Court and now the Jermyn Street theatres have all put on plays dealing with the (sometimes) thorny issue of homosexuality in football suggesting that we might be ready for a change. But then last weekend saw torrid rumours of a Premiership footballer about to come out to a Sunday paper followed by wanton accusations, hasty denials and the ongoing childish obsession with whether the game can ‘cope’ with a player being open about his sexuality.
Previously seen last year in Manchester and now embarking on a UK tour, Rob Ward and Martin Jameson’s Away From Home takes a slightly different look at the subject, taking the form of a one man show focused on male escort Kyle. He may be out to his friends and family and thoroughly accepted as one of the footy-mad lads down the local but his professional life remains a secret, something which is tested when he is first hired by a well-known footballer, and then subsequently finds himself falling for him.
Onstage for just over an hour and skilfully inhabiting all of the characters who appear in Kyle’s tale, Ward’s performance really is something to behold. The cocky swagger of the rent boy mellowing into something infinitely more moving as Kyle comes to realise the depth of his feeling; the repressed emotion of the footballer who knows that there’s no way he can ever be fully honest; the father who struggles to hide his disappointment in the son he barely knows. Ward whips through them all, and more, with clearly defined precision and often with a keen sense of humour.
For though the overarching subject matter may be weightily huge, Away From Home is really at heart just about a mismatched love story and is suffused with comedy. There’s a real joy in how the thing that appals Kyle’s best friend McQueen the most, when he finds out what is going on, is that the footballer plays for their bitter rivals; the banter in the pubs and at the ground is well observed; and there’s a cuteness, and sexiness, to the way the relationship between the two men progresses from a transaction into something more meaningful.
Perhaps ironically, the one or two moments that fall flat are the moments when the references to homophobia in football become explicit – the requisite Fashanu reference and the indictment of FIFA’s choices for the next two World Cups feel a little crowbarred in, their points too heavily made when the subtle quality of the writing means it isn’t really necessary here. It is more effectively explored as the subtext here – a recognition that though it is significant there are no out gay male players, people’s sexuality has no bearing on their ability to kick a ball.
So to return to my opening question, I would argue the answer is yes. For though the landscape will unalterably change if – when – a footballer comes out, it is already subtly shifting through the constant and necessary questions that plays like Away From Home are asking.