What do you need to stage a successful play ? Six actors, six rugby shirts, a rugby ball and a good story, plus an excellent writer and an even more excellent director. It all looks deceptively easy, but if it was, then every production would be as good as this one.
Writer Robin Soans and veteran director Max Stafford-Clark have turned the story of how Welsh rugby hero Gareth Thomas came out as gay into an absorbing two-act drama which proves once again that less can be more in the theatre. You can manage with a simple set (a changing room with a few pegs, benches and lockers), minimal lighting changes and no music, except for the actors singing in chorus. The six male and female actors take it in turns to play Thomas, just putting on a red Welsh shirt when needed.
Robin Soans has had a long career not just as an actor but as a playwright, centred on documentary drama. Stafford-Clark has an even longer pedigree as artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre and the touring company Out of Joint. One of his most memorable productions was The Permanent Way, written by David Hare and staged in the Cottesloe theatre, a documentary drama about rail privatisation.
Crouch Touch Pause Engage is based on true events, but it is put together with the acute sensitivity and imagination of a fictional storyteller. The characters speak mostly to the audience but also interact with each other, creating a multi-layered tapestry. The play's initial focus seems fuzzy, and it takes a little while before Gareth Thomas is at the centre. But the detailed canvas of life in rugby-mad Bridgend, a place ravaged by the collapse of traditional industries and the closure of the modern factories that replaced them, builds up the necessary social context for Thomas's story. The play contains another story as well -- that of Bridgend's unwanted reputation as the suicide capital of South Wales. Running in parallel to Thomas's anguished personal drama is a second life story, of a troubled overweight teenager who hears voices in her head, self-harms with a razor blade and tries to commit suicide, just as Thomas did.
After both characters reach their lowest point at the end of the first act, the second half of the play brings both through a difficult arc of recovery and redemption. The teenager and the rugby player gradually learn to be honest with themselves and with others. The message of the play is devoid of sugary moral uplift, but it is genuinely moving. Thomas finds the most difficult thing to come to terms with is not that he is gay, but that he has lied to everyone. His relationship with his wife collapses for good after he tells her, but his team-mates give him their support. And the troubled teenager's story arc meets his when she takes up rugby as well.
Anyone trying to write or direct for the stage should try to see this play, now on at the Arcola as part of an extensive tour. It's immediately accessible to a wide audience, crisply performed by a great cast, and it gets exactly right a number of things which less experienced writers and directors often get wrong. There's a balance between the way the characters speak with each other and with the audience, and a balance between showing and telling. For example, we meet a tabloid journalist who tells the story of how he was told by his editor to challenge Thomas about his sexuality. It turns out the young reporter was so much in awe of the great rugby player that he barely managed to get his question out. But we don't meet the photographers who hung around outside Thomas's home and made his life a misery, because their experience would contribute little to the story. The background context about South Wales and Bridgend is deftly explained by the characters themselves, with a historical overview put into the mouth of a local politician -- Neil Kinnock. The theme of the Bridgend teenage suicides is introduced obliquely with similar skill at the start of the play, through the words of a headmaster speaking to his pupils and offering them counselling about 'recent events'.
Making theatre is just as much about what you leave out as what you put in. This play proves it.