Hands Up for Jonny Wilkinson's Right Boot

Shane Morgan

Live Wire Theatre

The Redgrave Theatre Bristol

From 11 September 2015 to 23 October 2015

Review by Sue Gordon

You might think that a play written to coincide with The Rugby World Cup 2015 would be lightweight nonsense produced solely for commercial ends.

Not so; Hands Up for Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot is a wonderful piece of work which tells the fascinating and moving story of Frederick Stanley Jackson, a Cornish rugby player from the first decade of the 20th century.

As this production reveals so poignantly, Jackson was a colossus of a man on and off the field; hailed as the greatest player of his generation he spent most of his life fighting the social and racial prejudices that were endemic in Rugby Union’s establishment at the time.

Banned for life by an England Rugby Football Union Committee obsessed with upholding the amateur status of the game, he then did battle with their counterparts in New Zealand who would not allow him to help with the development of Rugby Union in the Maori communities that he came to love.

Although Shane Morgan’s beautifully crafted show may focus on events that happened in the first half of the 20th century, it is the play’s intelligent exploration of the battle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” that makes it so contemporary and far more than a mere story about rugby.

The excellent cast of just four actors swap roles with precision and panache playing numerous parts which include the RFU committee, the Cornish side that won the County Championship in 1908, members of the British Lions touring party of the same year, and—most dramatically—Anzac soldiers fighting and dying on the beaches of Gallipoli.

George Williams is quite superb and utterly convincing as the enigmatic stranger compelled to tell the story of his ancestors. I was particularly moved by his sensitive re-enactment of the love affair between Jackson and Horowai, the Maori woman he married.

There is excellent support from Giles Coram, Hannah Douglas and Moira Hunt who move between their roles as modern rugby fans and characters in Jackson’s story with synchronised poise. I particularly liked Hannah Douglas’s portrayal of Hartnett, the toffy-nosed manager of the 1908 British Lions, Giles Coram’s fiercely zealous Regimental Recruiting Officer and Moira Hunt’s ruthless Boer War Sergeant Major.

Hands Up for Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot tells its compelling story through a rich combination of dialogue, direct address, song and verse. Above all, though, it is the imaginative physical language of the show, choreographed by movement director  Moira Hunt, that makes this such a special production. The Cornish scrum, the Battle of Gallipoli and the All Blacks HAKA are brought to life with a rare combination of energy and physical accuracy.

An original, witty and engaging script is done great justice by the direction of Shane Morgan who is to be congratulated on creating an impressive piece of theatre that never loses focus or pace. Here is a director who knows there are many ways to tell a story and when each is appropriate; the shifts between naturalistic modern day banter and more stylised dramatization of historical moments are perfectly balanced.

Hands Up for Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot is theatre of the highest quality. It is entertaining, thought-provoking and far transcends the rugby field. It will be staged next at The Rondo Theatre Bath from 30 September to 3 October before touring theatres throughout south west until 23 October. Don’t miss this highly original production.