“Finally, a piece of me made sense”
The narrative about the lack of out gay sportsmen and women has to be accompanied by an examination of the ways in which ‘news’ of sexuality is reported and received, especially in the social media age. And fortunately that’s the focus of Richard D Sheridan’s Odd Shaped Balls, first seen in Edinburgh last year and presented here in a reworked version by Plane Paper Theatre (who also delivered the excellent Don’t Smoke in Bed at the Finborough earlier this year.)
James Hall is rugby team the Chiltern Colts’ star player, spearheading their latest promotion to the top tier of the game. But with success comes increased exposure and as a media handler is brought in to help prevent the sweary faux pas for which Jimmy has become infamous, it soon becomes clear that there’s more than just loose lips that he wants to keep under wraps. For though he’s loved up with a girlfriend, he’s also secretly intimately involved with a man.
When the lid is blown by – who else – a blogger, James is then faced with the many pressures arising from the revelation. Personally, he needs to unpick the damage done to his loved ones; professionally, he needs to discover whether a gay man can fit into the hyper-masculine world of club rugby; and publically, he’s got to deal with the expectation of becoming a role model, when he’s still trying to find a sure footing with his sexuality, and director Andrew Twyman unfolds all of this well.
Matthew Marrs nails the role, physically impressive but increasingly psychologically suspect as he faces the reactions on Twitter, on breakfast-time chat shows, in front of thousands of chanting fans on the terrace. But Sheridan’s one-man play requires him to play all of the other roles too, which is fine when they speak in monologue – the northern team-mate and the Geordie boss both particularly well done – but there’s something a tad awkward when both sides of a conversation are required, something which doesn’t garner anywhere near the same effect as the beautifully moving sequence with his father post-coming out.
Even in this intimate space, Luke W Robson’s set cleverly incorporates several bastions of masculinity where James has to deal with his trials – the pub, the pitch, the locker room. And Sheridan wisely refrains from resolving too much too tidily, the pervasive nature of homophobia, not just in sport but in society at large, too significant to be thus mistreated. It is this kind of authentic consideration that gives Odd Shaped Balls much of its power, challenging us all to do better, to be better when it comes to sport and sexuality.