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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Sex with a Stranger, Trafalgar Studios

Originally written for Spoonfed.

The bold title of Stefan Golaszewski’s new play, while undoubtedly attention grabbing, is slightly misleading. Although this comedy’s short, punchy scenes dance around many of the moments leading up to, informing and following the carnal act of its title, the narrative’s climax (pun intended) is never quite reached.

The central one night stand is between Grace, played with pitch-perfect, endearing awkwardness by Jaime Winstone, and Russell Tovey’s equally endearing but romantically clueless Adam. They meet in a nightclub, an encounter followed by all the usual inexpert groping, interminable late night travel and mandatory kebabs that characterise such liaisons. It is the longest, most toe-curlingly awkward display of foreplay imaginable. As a background to this fumbling, fleeting affair, Adam has left at home his long-term girlfriend Ruth, a piercingly poignant bundle of insecurities in the hands of Naomi Sheldon.

With the same shrewd observation deployed in offbeat comedy Him and Her, writer Golaszewski and director Phillip Breen have zeroed in on an unflinching, almost grubby realism. Dialogue revolves around such humdrum topics as Homebase and salad, while the subtlest facial movement from any one of the unfailingly excellent cast conveys a clutch of instantly recognisable thoughts. In the cosy space of Studio 2 such minutiae achieves maximum effect, although the minimalist, close-up focus on the mundane does threaten to dent the play with its own slightness.

The scenes between Adam and his two different partners are chopped up and intersected; fractured moments from flawed relationships that have been roughly thrown about and then separately, delicately held up to the light. Under Emma Chapman’s bright, often stark lighting, these glimpses into the lives of Adam, Grace and Ruth can feel like snapshots, brief bulb-flash illuminations that fade away as quickly as they were captured. The piece resists togetherness and resolution, but its lack of cohesion is symbolically fitting for a play that distils the lack of connection between individuals.

Looked at through the lens of these diced, jagged scenes, Sex with a Stranger reads as a jarring oxymoron: an act of the greatest intimacy juxtaposed with the most fleeting of human connections. But who out of Grace and Ruth is the greater stranger to Adam? While many aspects of these two contrasting relationships differ dramatically, the most striking moments in both are the awkward, strained silences that garner pained laughs of recognition.

Ultimately, what elevates this from the realm of mere observational humour is its unsettling grain of grim truth. Under the veil of comedy, Golaszewski is dishing up for the audience’s guilty consumption our own inability to communicate and connect. Romance may not quite be dead, but the signs of life are hard to find.

Sex with a Stranger runs at Trafalgar Studios until 25 February.