The Pass, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Following Thomas Hitzlsperger’s decision to publicly come out, renewed focus has fallen on the prejudice still faced by gay footballers, bestowing something of a mixed blessing on the Royal Court’s latest offering. On the surface of it, John Donnelly’s play is “about” a premiership footballer struggling with his sexuality, which he stubbornly refuses to define or discuss. But it also touches on lots of other things – fame, money, friendship, competition –which get slightly elided in the wake of its sudden topicality.

The play, following a familiar trajectory, traces the journey of footballer Jason (the ever-excellent Russell Tovey) from early promise through to the giddy zenith of fame, plotted out via three pivotal moments in three different hotel rooms. Its first scene, while slow to develop, offers plenty to relish. Jason and best mate Ade (Gary Carr) are killing time on the night before the biggest match of their lives – two tensely coiled springs in close proximity. Their relationship and its silent undercurrent of mutual attraction are believably and wittily sketched, as laddish banter gradually gives way to compelling tenderness.

Cut to seven years later, when Jason has gained fame and fortune but lost the puppylike glimmer of mischief that so animated him on his first appearance. This is where the piece begins to slacken its initially confident grip, taking a long time to get anywhere. The scene’s encounter between Jason and table dancer Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), though enjoyable, feels convoluted and contrived for the sake of a plot point that could be achieved with much less meandering. The swagger returns after the interval, as Jason and Ade are reunited for a hedonistic night that crackles with danger and desire, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is a script in need of some tightening.

Alongside the main thrust of the plot, there are also some more ambitious shots which – though on target – rarely hit the back of the net. Buried within the classic tale of fame’s empty promises is an implicit critique of the parameters of success in modern society, most of which rest on money. Competition, in life as in sport, also receives a bit of a battering; the sense is that this, more than anything else, is what drives a wedge between Jason and Ade, while Jason’s desire to win leaves him cripplingly lonely. But these avenues are left frustratingly underexplored.

Despite its weaknesses, however, Tovey holds the piece together in a remarkable central performance. From his first youthful grimaces of self-congratulation, furiously skipping to the imagined roars of the crowd, to the hunched husk of a form that he becomes in the final scene as he bends determinedly over his exercise bike, Tovey’s every last muscle is employed in fleshing out the character of Jason. Astonishingly, he seems to age physically as well as emotionally, subtly transfiguring himself before our eyes as he progresses from enthusiastic newcomer to hardened veteran. One imagines that he behaves on the football pitch as he does in life – dodging, sprinting, pulling off slick manoeuvres without breaking a sweat, yet all underscored with a faint attitude of desperation.

This is reflected in John Tiffany’s production, which marries polish with uncertainty, machismo with vulnerability. There are also brilliant outbursts of playfulness, Jason and Ade’s gleeful trashing of the hotel room in the final scene being one of the most entertaining, though these do not always sit comfortably with the rest of the action. More could perhaps be made of Laura Hopkins’ clean, slick design, capturing both the attraction and the cold impersonality of the hotel room setting. It’s a canny choice of location, at once encapsulating glamour, escape and loneliness. I’m particularly struck by Lyndsey’s loaded observation that “tomorrow someone will come in and clean this all away”; a simple factual statement that resonates deeply with Jason’s transitory, unfulfilled existence.

As the piece closes, however, it leaves the nagging sense of something lacking. Ultimately, the main disappointment of The Pass is that it fails to add anything significantly new to the discussion it engages with, leaving my opinions on its subject matter little altered or challenged at the end of two and a bit hours, in spite of many intriguing turns along the way. But this is, perhaps, less a failure on its own terms than on the terms of the media discourse surrounding it. Timeliness, it seems, is something of a double-edged sword.

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