Writer: Rob Ward
Director: Adam Zane
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
First of all a grumble at a company that mostly deserves high praise. The notable absence of a cast list, both on the night and/or digitally on the website (at the time of writing this review), is disappointing. No mention of the actors or the tech team are given – and sound and lights are very effective in Gypsy Queen. Reviews of last year’s successful tour revealed that writer Rob Ward also acted in the play and included the name of the other actor. Hopefully the casting hasn’t changed in 2019.
The most remarkable thing about Gypsy Queen is perhaps that such a gay-oriented play is packing out mainstream Northern theatres. Reasons for this include the wit and observational skill of Ward’s script and the fact that it’s set in a believable real world. The opening paired monologues, on the fringe of poetry, present a gypsy bare-knuckle fighter relating his latest triumph (this one very funny) and a would-be champion dancing his way to a points victory.
The opening set-up is a bit contrived, but works well enough. Dane “The Pain” Samson’s father, a former champion and now his trainer, is irritated by his lack of killer instinct and goes to the pub where “Gorgeous” George O’Connell is celebrating his latest bare-knuckle victory. George’s late father had also been a bare-knuckle fighter and, tempted into the pro ring, had lasted less than a minute with the very man who is now offering to train his son. This is where the contrivance stops: this is not a second generation re-run.
Although George’s arrival in the gym prompts a graphically staged “friendly” bout with Dane, much more important is the way that Dane says, “Gorgeous George”. We have already learned that Dane is a sexually active gay man, but his relationship stops short of an emotional commitment, while George has had plenty of encounters with willing young women on the Asda car park, but shies away from the “nice” girls his mother finds for him to marry.
The scenes between Dane and George can be touchingly romantic or comically sexual as with George forgets himself in the kiddies’ matinee of a Disney film. A key element of the plot becomes which of them the elder Samson sees as a son and why, but even more important is the issue of coming out. George finally latches on to his sexual orientation, but Dane’s is a subtler case: he has come out to his father and gym-mates, but has yet to take the final step to openness and exposure to homophobia. The relevance of this to professional sport in general is clear in an age when, for instance, the public is asked to believe that no top-level footballer is gay.
The hints are that the story will end tragically – and it does – but not in a clichéd way. There is no big fight between the two lovers or death in the ring climax; the tragedy is oblique and unexpected, two words that could also be applied to much of a clever and emotionally charged script, Adam Zane’s deft and fluent direction and two excellent performances.
Rob Ward (Dane) and Ryan Clayton (George) are never over-stated as the central characters, playing the parts with natural sincerity and a fair deal of athleticism, and both shine in the cameo roles that come thick and fast, as they quick-change around the costume-filled locker-room pegs. Clayton has a nice line in over-the-top comedy as the superannuated trainer and Ward delivers a delicious comic turn as George’s foul-mouthed, devotedly Catholic mother, managing to move from parody into humanity – and much the same can be said of Clayton as Dane’s former lover, extravagantly out while Dane’s closet door remains ajar.
Touring nationally | Image: Contributed