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Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
5 Star Review in The Times
This brilliant docu-drama account of gay rugby player Gareth Thomas’s life wrenches the gut and makes the soul sing
It’s a modest kind of heroism that’s depicted in Robin Soans’s latest documentary-drama and somehow all the more glorious for that. At its centre — bluff, beefy, tough and scared — is Gareth “Alfie” Thomas, the Welsh rugby star who came out as gay in 2009. But, brilliantly, Soans constructs around him a narrative as much about his Bridgend community as it is about the sportsman’s personal journey.
Here is a once-thriving county fighting for its identity and its future, its mining industry obliterated under Margaret Thatcher. And here the press closed in not just on Thomas, but on families buckling under the grief of a spate of youth suicides. Yet the play, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for Out of Joint and National Theatre Wales, is a celebration of courage, doggedness, and sheer bloodyminded indomitability. It wrenches the gut and makes the soul sing.
Stafford-Clark’s production has a clear-eyed, unsentimental immediacy that allows all the passion and pride, the anger, sadness and resilient, salty humour to emerge from the unvarnished language of Soans’s verbatim dialogue based on research interviews. Nothing in the staging is obtrusive, yet it’s subtly skilled.
On Angela Davies’s changing-room set, all six performers play Thomas, taking his red jersey from a peg and passing a rugby ball between them as each adopts the role. Scott Graham’s slow-motion choreography gives the on-pitch action a balletic grace. We meet Thomas’s parents, his best friend and his wife, hear of the homophobic jeers from the stands, his subterfuges (poignant, sometimes comic, often futile), his guilt over lying and his fear of rejection, which almost drive him to self-destruction.
Meanwhile, another strand introduces two Bridgend school friends, also isolated and in crisis, one spiralling into mental illness and self-harm, the other helplessly watching as her father, made monstrous by misery and despair, violently abuses her mother.
There’s an ordinariness to these accounts with their mundane details and wry jokes, their compassion and fierce defiance of self-pity, that makes them staggeringly moving. An interlude featuring a portrayal of Neil Kinnock, interviewed for sociohistorical perspective, feels awkwardly inserted, but this is bracing theatre that delivers its subjects’ stories in their own powerful, plainspoken poetry.