Writer: Robin Soans
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Can anyone ever truly be who they really are? In some ways it seems that society is more open and multicultural as ever, but with the rise of trolling on social media as well as pages and pages dedicated to attacking a celebrity’s thighs or their choice of baby names, it’s hard to believe society is as tolerant and we would hope in the twenty-first century. This new play by Robin Soans is a case in point as it tells the story of Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas, one time Welsh rugby captain, who hid his homosexuality because the idea that a sportsman could be gay is still considered strange.
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage has two semi-related stories to tell about the town of Bridgend; the first is of Thomas’s rugby career and the effect the continual media interest in his sexuality had on his career and loved ones, and the second about two teenage girls from the town struggling with tragic events and accepting who they are. For much of the play they run on parallel tracks with only some thematic crossover before being just about brought together for a final message about perspectives and support.
Whether or not you care about rugby, this is a fascinating production and it is through both the warmth of the characters and some interesting directorial decisions that the audience is drawn into the story. It uses a conversational tone with the characters directly addressing the audience as though they were being retrospectively interviewed about what happened to them, and they quickly build a rapport with the viewer. In Gareth’s story we hear from him, as well as his parents, friends, team mates, reporters and even Neil Kinnock which emphasises that while the focus was personally on Thomas, it had a much wider effect on the community around him. Writer Robin Soans uses his characters’ memories to place evocative scenes in the viewer’s mind, both intense moments such as a literal pre-interval cliffhanger as a despairing Thomas is left standing on the edge, as well as the more homely sense of life in Bridgend and the sad feeling of decline that came with rugby team, pit and entertainment venue closures that sucked the life from the town.
Max Stafford-Clark in an inspired move constantly changes the actor playing Thomas throughout the play, so at some point every member of the cast performs that rôle indicated by wearing a red rugby top with ‘Thomas’ on the back and the passing of a rugby ball to the ‘Thomas’ of that scene. It’s an interesting device which cleverly underlines the play’s central point that issues of identity and acceptance affect everyone, regardless of gender or age, so in some sense Gareth becomes everyone and they him. It also reinforces the notion that the red shirt you see on the surface is not necessarily indicative of what’s underneath, thus exploring assumed notions of the physical characteristics of masculinity and their relation to homosexuality.
As rugby is very much a team sport, the cast of multiple ‘Alfies’ is very good each bringing their own side to his character as well as variety of engaging semi-comic rôles. Rhys ap William and Bethan Witcomb are particularly funny as Gareth’s parents, finishing each other’s sentences and speaking in unison, but all the other characters played by Patrick Brennan, Katie Elin-Salt, Daniel Hawksford and Lauren Roberts are an equally delightful mix of larger than life and entirely likeable.
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is in some ways a very sad story about the needless hounding of a leading sportsman who loved his job but found the pressure of concealing his personal life almost too much to bear. But there is enormous warmth in this story that ends with a sense of hope not just that Thomas himself is now more at ease, but also that the smallest act of support can make all the difference to someone who just wants to be who they are.
Runs Until: 20 June| PhotoRobert Workman