DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Ruck – Theatre Royal, Wakefield

Writer: Kevin Fegan

Director: Joyce Branagh

Designer: Olivia de Monceau

Music: Rebekah Hughes

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

This project began life with Kevin Fegan’s residency with the Batley Bulldogs rugby league team. He decided to focus on the club’s highly successful girls’ under-16 team for his play and even accompanied them on their ground-breaking tour of Australia in 2015. The result is The Ruck, produced by Creative Scene and the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, and now on a short Yorkshire tour.

The play, though directly involving and always entertaining, is oddly puzzling, too. How is it that a play that deals seriously, if not profoundly, with incest, abuse, lesbianism and race relations feels so wholesome, even almost cosy? Perhaps it’s the essential niceness of the characters – or maybe it’s Fegan’s cleverly integrated, only occasionally intrusive, mission to educate. He wants us to know about Batley, rugby league, Australian society and teenage angst and mostly he does it very well. The opening poetic introduction to Batley works beautifully and it’s an inspiration to have the points in a rugby match against a vaguely equivalent Australian town scored by facts about their similarity/problems. However, sometimes problems are solved too easily or issues explained rather than enacted, though as a result there are some effective, and even moving, soliloquies. 

The play presents a varied set of characters from the team, deals with their pre-tour problems and then sends them to Australia for rich experiences and more problems. At the start a new girl, Iffy, joins the team, as a Muslim a member of a community that shows little interest in rugby league as even Spen, the broad-minded coach, admits in a nostalgic riff on the decline of support in the area around Mount Pleasant, Batley’s ground.

Iffy provides the catalyst for revealing the problems of the three other girls Fegan uses to represent the team. Heaton has an alcoholic mother and is faced with her grandmother’s demand that she mustn’t go to Australia because of some dark secret in the family’s past that she might uncover there. Emley suffers from boy troubles and an over-generous and over-possessive dad. Shelley’s problems are also partly to do with her father, the coach – why doesn’t he treat her as something special? – but mainly concern sexual identity.

Sophie Mercer’s Iffy is enigmatic, sardonic and highly intelligent, probably the most layered characterisation, but not always adjusted to the size of the theatre. Esther-Grace Button (Shelley), Josie Cerise (Emley) and Emily Spowage (Heaton) all give attractive performances, deepening as the evening progresses, and all give good value in their brief emotional crises. All four are youthfully athletic – and well drilled – in Rachel Gee’s choreography of the Batley girls’ matches.

Richard Hand as Spen is unfailingly sympathetic, even if it is difficult to accept that so wise a guide to both the girls and the audience should apparently fail spectacularly to understand his daughter. Emma Ashton, Robert Took and Sam Winterbottom give yeoman service, if not without the odd touch of caricature, in a variety of parts both British and antipodean.

Joyce Branagh’s lively production makes astute use of Olivia de Monceau’s two-level set. Rebekah Hughes’ songs, mostly ensemble pieces involving all eight cast, move from folk to rap and do their bit to emphasise the feel-good factor.

Touring Regionally | Image: Anthony Billington Photography

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