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Robin Soans
Out of Joint
Watford Palace Theatre

Katie Elin Salt, Patrick Brennan, Rhys ap William, Daniel Hawksford and Bethan Witcomb Credit: Robert Workman
Daniel Hawksford as Alfie, Katie Elin Salt as Meryl and Lauren Roberts as Darcey Credit: Robert Workman
Bethan Witcomb as Vonnie and Rhys ap William as Baz Credit: Robert Workman
Katie Elin-Salt as Jemma and Daniel Hawksford as Alfie Credit: Robert Workman
Daniel Hawksford as Compo and Katie Elin-Salt as Alfie Credit: Robert Workman
Daniel Hawksford as Martyn, Patrick Brennan as Scott, Rhys ap William as Alfie and Bethan Witcomb as Steve Credit: Robert Workman

Bridgend is a town in South Wales, west of Cardiff. It is a place with Rugby Football in its blood, from where international Rugger star Gareth Thomas comes; a town affected by the closing of the pits and, then the disappearance or reduction of some of the other industries that came in to replace them. It also attracted press attention for the high number of its young people trying to kill themselves.

Robin Soans’s gripping new play draws on all these aspects of life in Bridgend and, like much of his earlier work, is closely based on what those actually involved have told him.

It centres on Gareth (Alfie) Thomas, who bravely came out publicly as a gay man in 2009. It is the story of his struggle to accept his sexuality and acknowledge it to others but that’s told in parallel with those of two girls. Unlike all the other people in the play, these teenagers may be representational rather than actual individuals, but their situations are very real ones.

Meryl’s dad got violent after he lost his job. She and her mum were put in a safe house to escape him; later they learned of his suicide. Her friend Darcey doesn’t really remember her dad; he left when she was three. She gets fat and caught up in a pattern of self-harm and attempted suicide. The two strands of the play draw alongside each other as Thomas also stands ready to kill himself.

Thomas’s story is given more background and more enactment and dominates perhaps because we all know it’s a real-life one. The brief appearance of Neil Kinnock providing background economics doesn’t make this about Bridgend but everything adds up as a picture of circumstance, the girls’ situation a reminder of the difficulties we can all have in handling our problems.

Thomas is one man but the production implies his situation could be anyone. With gender-blind casting, each member of the company plays him at some point: whoever is wears his red shirt becomes Gareth (or “Alfie“ as friends and colleagues call him), as soon as the rugger ball he holds is passed to them.

Quite a lot of the dialogue has characters recounting their own experiences. It may be verbatim material drawn from interviews but it draws its impact from the rapport that each player has with audience (Lauren Roberts as in-yer-face Darcey and as Alfie is particularly effective). The power pumps up further when scenes become live action, as when Rhys ap William’s Alfie confronts Katie Elin-Salt as his wife Jemma and reveals his real sexuality.

Rhys ap William and Bethan Witcomb as Alfie’s parents, Baz and Vonnie, each finishing the other’s sentences, give superb performances: if only everyone could have families of such warmth and understanding. There is a highly-charged sequence in which a succession of Alfies “come out“ to his parents, then to his mate Compo (Daniel Hawksford), to his former coach Scott (Patrick Brennan) and then finds acceptance from teammates Martyn (Hawksford again) and Steve (Bethan Witcomb).

Though its situations are emotional, the play is also full of humour (both together when Compo tries to get Katie Elin-Salt’s Alfie to think twice about getting married) and a strong physicality.

The set throughout is the Bridgend team’s changing room; designer Angela Davies makes it a background for against which action suggests any necessary location. The play’s title is reminder of preparation for a scrum and Max Stafford-Clark’s production uses the rugby metaphor to guide its physical format, dramatic impetus passed, like Alfie’s ball, from player to player.

You don’t have to know anything about rugby—or be gay—to appreciate this play. All that direct address at the beginning does seem a bit preachy but it soon sparks into life and commitment and sensitive playing make it strong theatre that everyone should find rewarding.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton