Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage

Robin Soans
Out of Joint/National Theatre of Wales
Arcola Theatre

Daniel Hawksford, Patrick Brennan, Rhys ap William & Bethan Witcomb Credit: Robert Workman
The Cast Credit: Robert Workman
Lauren Roberts & Patrick Brennan Credit: Robert Workman

Rugby is as macho as any sport but even those games with a softer reputation still struggle with perceived and, in most cases, actual homophobia.

If Gareth "Alfie" Thomas had made an earlier career in the theatre or many other trades, he would have proudly "come out" before finishing training.

As a man who would ultimately become captain of the Welsh Rugby international rugby XV, he felt compelled to kept his sexuality secret for as long as possible.

Similar stories have been revealed about soccer players and cricketers and make the headlines every time, implicitly demonstrating the problem.

For each professional sports person that does take the courageous decision to announce that he or she is gay, statistics suggest that there will be a dozen others who have not got the courage to admit to the love that dare not speak its name.

Robin Soans's play commissioned by the National Theatre of Wales explores the life and hidden experiences of Thomas in a production directed by Max Stafford Clark for Out Of Joint.

In many ways, it can be seen as a companion piece to Tim Price's The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, which also emanated from Wales and explored similar territory.

The presentation has the same communal starting point too, with the six actors (three male and three female) regularly passing around the responsibilities of playing the protagonist with a rugby ball replacing the more traditional baton.

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage centres on the story of Thomas, the archetypal Welsh hero but takes in three other strands.

The rugby star hails from Bridgend, once a proud town but wrecked when the colliery closed, swiftly followed by the factories. What was left was the kind of empty community where the only hope for the future lay in leaving.

That was certainly the case for a couple of local teenagers. Katie Elin-Salt's Meryl was part of a happy family until her father was maddened by unemployment, leading to the sad spiral of violence, threats with knives, a move to a safe house with her mother and finally, his suicide.

Her friend, Darcey played by Lauren Roberts fared even worse, hearing and following voices inside her head that counselled self-destruction.

The 50 minutes before the interval develop the tales of the town and its inhabitants introducing and establishing the main players.

In the intense 35 minutes after the break, the audience is subjected to an emotional rollercoaster, particularly as two of the stories leave their central figures close to suicide. In particular, it is hard to see the mighty fallen following constant, almost comical if it were not so devastating, pursuit by the media.

By then, he had established himself as one of the best rugby players of his generation, while hiding his sexual preferences, to the extent of marrying his childhood sweetheart. Sadly, Gemma could not take her husband's announcement and left immediately.

In the uplifting later scenes, the rocks who supported Thomas through his darkest days were Rhys ap William and Bethan Whitcomb as the most supportive parents imaginable plus Daniel Hawksford's Compo, a playing colleague and good mate from his earliest days at Bridgend and Scott Johnson, the Australian coach of the Welsh team, portrayed (like Neil Kinnock) by the highly versatile Patrick Brennan.

Between them, with the assistance of a couple of loyal team mates, this quartet eased a proud, brave man to change his life forever, become a role model to local youngsters and more surprisingly a panto star.

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is a deeply moving and important play that might help high-profile gay sports stars (and potentially shy people in other walks of life) to free themselves from the perceived need to hide their true natures from a potentially cruel world.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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