The Pass**** (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 8 February 2014)

Posted: February 9, 2014 in Theatre

Attachment-1-6After half a century during which, in our own country at least, society has become steadily more tolerant of minorities, the world of professional footballers stands resolutely as one of the last bastions of the old order. As seen in John Donnelly’s new play, it is a macho world which tolerates no deviations from its norms, particularly with regard to intellectualism and homosexuality; the private lives of its inhabitants are effectively as regimented as in a solid 4-4-2 formation and, if any of them begins to even think outside the box, they risk conceding the severest of penalties. The play takes place in three hotel rooms over a period of more than a decade, beginning in Bulgaria on the night before a Champions’ League match. Sharing the room are Ade and Jason, close friends who are also rivals for a first team place; they exchange laddish banter, but eventually come to realise that what exists between them may be more than just friendship. Later we discover that both played in the match, which proved to be pivotal for their careers, Jason going on to become a fabulously wealthy Beckham-style superstar, Ade to run a plumbing business and play at weekends on Hackney Marshes. In many ways Ade (Gary Carr) is the more interesting and certainly more sympathetic character. It would have been nice to get to know him better, but, after a shared first scene, the focus is set firmly on Jason (Russell Tovey) and his painful battle with his own sexuality. So what if top footballers have to suffer for their sport, aren’t they paid enough for it? True, but the play cleverly extends its range outside the enclosed world of football to show the wider impact of the game’s entrenched position. Firstly we meet Lyndsey (Lisa McGrillis), a single mother desperate for cash who agrees to provide a kiss and tell story in a media game of deception and counter deception. And then appears Harry (Nico Mirallegro), a young fan who is shaping his own life using the macho and largely false vision of his idol Jason as a role model, thereby demonstrating how football’s outdated image is damaging society more generally. Tovey, a familiar face in television and theatre, was described recently in The Guardian as exuding “irrepressible down-the-pub blokeishness”; he is is an Essex boy, has an athletic physique and he is an openly gay actor. So he ticks just about every box for playing Jason and he plays him well, except that he is never able to make us sympathise with him. In fairness, the writer gives him little to work on and, in a critical failing, he never allows the character to articulate his true emotions. All we see is Jason as outwardly egocentric and a vile bully, so that, when he is faced with either the Hitzisperger or the Fashanu option, do we really care? When the two footballers are reunited, Ade is partnered with a man whilst Jason is parted from his WAG and two children and living in a hotel waiting to find a new club to end his playing days in the Middle East or America. We are left in no doubt as to which of the two is the luckier. This play needs a little cutting from its first two scenes and is far from perfect, but it is absorbing, significant and has several memorable dramatic high points.

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