Odd Shaped Balls – Old Red Lion Theatre
“A stunning one-man show that veers from hilarious to touching. It’s a thoughtful exploration of masculinity and sport, as well as a thoroughly entertaining evening’s viewing.”
We’re in the dressing room of the Chiltern Colts. Newly promoted to the big leagues, this rugby team has high expectations of its new season, and James Hall is their star player. However, it soon appears that the challenges off the pitch will prove far more taxing. Because James has a secret. Hidden from those around him, even himself, he is in love with a man. And when the newspapers get hold of that story, his world becomes far more complicated than facing a tough opposing team.
It’s a matter of minutes before you realise the talent of Matthew Marrs. Through slight gestures, facial expressions and a brilliant array of accents, he morphs effortlessly into an array of characters, from his hard-talking boss to the simpering PR man hired to help the team out and his cheery Welsh team captain. Conversing with himself, he transforms an empty stage into a myriad of voices and emotions. Impressive stuff.
When the media learn of his affair, he has to deal with an emotional and very public outing. The way this is handled in the script is fantastic. Richard Sheridan beautifully captures the mixture of stoicism, awkwardness and humour from his teammates, with the central character of James acting as an emotional counterpoint to the hysteria around him.
The setting reeks of accepted tropes of masculinity – the pitch, the bar, the bench, even the chair that is the place where his male authority figures – his father and his manager – dole out their advice. It’s no secret that mostly those with their careers behind them choose to share their sexuality with the world, and this play reveals some of the reasons why this is the case. In the ‘lad’ culture of rugby, is there a place for someone like James? It’s a question that countless boys and men must have asked themselves, and it’s important that this play tackles them.
It also asks some pertinent and rather revealing questions about the pressures placed on sports players, the savagery of social media and the public’s need to stereotype and pigeonhole in order to feel comfortable with those they admire.
The only place I felt the hand of the writer a little too heavily was when James expressed his personal views on his situation. Some of the statements felt a little too exact and perfectly placed to be the words of a man in the middle of emotional turmoil, but I can understand why they were there as they captured the heart of the play’s message. Perhaps the writer should be reassured that his message is clear, without needing to state it to the audience openly.
We are left, ultimately, with hope. Rugby is a team game, and the euphoria James feels from being a part of it comes from this feeling of inclusion, and family. Perhaps, as a true family, sport will become more accepting of anyone who chooses to run onto the pitch. The only hope is that, in the future, all sportspeople will be judged only for their sport, not for their personal lives, and that more people are able to see a reflection of themselves, no matter who they love, in the faces they see on the TV.
Odd Shaped Balls
Guest Review by Sarah Tinsley