There is a paradox in the phrase ‘a homophobic queer’, a man that is misled into believing that gay and camp are synonyms and is revolted by the idea that he might be included among those they describe. It is the situation that James Hall (Matthew Marrs) is accused of being in by his secret gay lover, Dom. As a professional rugby player, Hall is surrounded by the adrenaline-fuelled alpha males that he calls his colleagues and friends. So how can he, a fellow beefcake, admit to his workmates – or even to himself – that he is gay?
Odd Shaped Balls draws more than one parallel between being gay and being an addict. There’s the fear of people finding out, the double life, the cold turkey approach that leaves a sufferer feeling empty, afraid and alone. But playwright Richard D. Sheridan doesn’t portray his protagonist as a villain, far from it. James Hall (Marrs) is caught between a rock and a hard place, loving his girlfriend Claire and yet still being inextricably pulled to Dom. Add into the mix a career that has never been associated with the stereotypical image of a gay man and Hall, a young and ambitious yet insecure guy, doesn’t stand a chance.
This approach makes the audience root for him right from the off. Shouldn’t he be scorned at, reprimanded for cheating on his long-term partner with another, regardless of sexuality? He should. However, Marrs’ convincing portrayal of someone genuinely torn in two and his earnest, heartfelt attempt to vocalise his feelings wins the audience’s sympathy. His pretty boy good looks and sparkling blue eyes don’t hurt either.
Plane Paper Theatre have a knack for spotting new productions with hidden complexities; earlier this year they produced Don’t Smoke in Bed (Finborough Theatre) which looked at how a couple’s contrasting upbringings could ultimately tear them apart when probed by an external source. After working with Sheridan previously and seeing the reception Odd Shaped Balls got at Edinburgh fringe, Andrew Twyman brings this play to the Old Red Lion theatre.
There are many things that could trip a director up with this one-man show, but Twyman navigates them well. This is not simply a play about homophobia in sport. It also highlights the terrifying and destructive power of today’s social media. Simultaneously it delves into the anguish and terror that accompanies coming out of the closet (especially when you’re pushed) and touches on the soul-destroying realisation that being who you are could ultimately destroy the life you’ve created. The play even dips its toe into the waters of sexual fluidity. And all in an hour, with one actor and with a static set (albeit a delicately crafted throwback by Luke W. Robson to both the community sports club locker room and the 1950s wooden panelled, heavy-carpeted English pub). Throw in some snappy lighting cues by designer Robbie Butler and the stage is set for an exposing and well-rounded production.
As the original actor in Edinburgh, Marrs returns to the story and throws himself into it with full force. The key to his performance is a combination of pinpoint accuracy and graceful fluidity. He adopts a distinct stance, facial expression and voice for each character, providing insight into the reactions and thought processes for all of the individuals in Sheridan’s script. Odd Shaped Balls is as much a clever realisation of what isn’t said in the script as what is and, in this play, the former is just as important as the latter.
The caricaturing of both significant others, Dom and Claire, as introverted, shier and nervous people-pleasers to James’ Neanderthal grunts seems a bit predictable and less effective as a directorial choice. The rugby team is also just as expected – full of bravado, a bit brash and a set of lads that you don’t want to be in the pub if you’re in the mood for a quiet drink. Despite these small flaws, there is no denying Marrs’ believability in depicting each person. The characters come in and out of the tale quickly and it is testament to Marrs that he is able to instantly flow between them with barely time to take breath.
It is always refreshing to see a play that does more than tell its story, a play that sparks up fresh conversation. Odd Shaped Balls packs a lot into a short space of time, not only delivering a powerful performance from its leading man but providing enough meat to chew over in the bar afterwards. Sheridan reminds his audience that despite the progressive society of today, there is still a stigma attached to being a certain kind of person in a certain type of field. Unfortunately it will take a lot more effort to shift those negative stereotypes, but a play such as this is a good place for the conversation to start.
Odd Shaped Balls is on until 25th June 2016 at the Old Red Lion. Click here for more information.