Crouch Touch Pause Engage

Robin Soans
Out of Joint with Arcola Theatre, National Theatre Wales and Sherman Cymru
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Gareth Alfie Thomas carries the ball. (Rhys ap William) Credit: Robert Workman

Certain companies offer consistent high quality theatre. None more so than Out of Joint.

Over the years Max Stafford-Clark has repeatedly proved his ability to create exciting, moving productions, innovative and often astonishingly beautiful in appearance. Crouch Touch Pause Engage is an Out of Joint co-production with Arcola Theatre, National Theatre of Wales and Sherman Cymru. It has the Out of Joint Hallmark of quality.

Playwright Robin Soans has focused on the small Welsh town of Bridgend (population c50,000) and melded two of its stories into gripping drama. Once a mining community, Bridgend is now known as the home of Gareth Thomas and, to the gutter press, a centre for teenage suicide.

Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas rose to stardom as a rugby player, representing the town, his country and later playing abroad. A local giant and a national sports celebrity, he made news when he ‘came out’ as gay. Unrelatedly, Bridgend was the site of a cluster of teenage suicides. Soans has researched both events and found a theatrical device to integrate them.

The set is the Bridgend Rugby Club dressing room, also a house, schoolroom, and perhaps other locations. On stage, a cast of six, playing between them nine named characters plus, as it were, extras. The play develops at speed and maintains a breakneck pace throughout.

All six actors play the part of Gareth Thomas at one time or another. This at first confusing device becomes enthralling. It is sign-posted by the passing of a rugby ball from one ‘Gareth’ to another. The effect can be astonishing. At times it has intense emotional and narrative impact, as when Katie Elin-Salt plays a crest fallen, tearful Gareth coming out to his parents.

Elin-Salt (born in Bridgend) also plays Meryl, a supportive school friend of Darcy (Lauren Roberts), who self-harms and attempts suicide. Both have moving stories to tell. Although this strand of the play is weaker than the rugby player’s story, it is skilfully handled.

Rhys ap Williams, Patrick Brennan, Daniel Hawksford, and Bethan Witcom play Gareth and a range of characters: parents, schoolteachers, journalist, fans, yea even unto Neil Kinnock (who makes a rather unnecessary appearance).

With all this doubling, shirt swapping, and ball chucking, it would be understandable if we were left with no more than a spectacle, probably a comedic one at that. And some of the rugby moves are spectacular in their own right. But the Stafford-Clark magic is at work. This play becomes gripping and its emotional charge can be felt in the audience. The intensity of feeling peaks when the cast join together in "Bread of Heaven".

I have no interest in rugby whatsoever, don’t know one end of the ball from the other, but this drama with its very respectful treatment of working people and damaged people had me spellbound and very close to tears. Stafford-Clark is a master of the stage. Long may he practice his art and craft.

Reviewer: Ray Brown

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