THEATRE REVIEW: Odd Shaped Balls, Old Red Lion Theatre

running until 25 June

“His name is Jimmy Hall, he plays with odd shaped balls / So put your bums against the wall ‘cos here comes Jimmy Hall”. A fictional chant it may be, but it’s one that you can imagine ringing around a football or rugby stadium, or echoing through the doors of a sports pub. Professional sport has been one of the slower sectors of society to break down the perceived taboo of homosexuality. Figures such as Gareth Thomas, Steven Davies, Nicola Adams and John Amaechi have, over the years, helped to improve the situation – but things are still far from easy, particularly in team sports with a traditionally ‘macho’ reputation.

Matthew Marrs in Odd Shaped Balls at Old Red Lion (c) Luke W. Robson
Matthew Marrs in Odd Shaped Balls (c) Luke W. Robson

In this case, the above chant is levelled at our central character, James Hall. A young up-and-coming rugby star, his relationship with a man is revealed by the press, causing heartbreak for long-term girlfriend Claire, animosity amongst some of the fans and much confusion in his own mind. We follow his turbulent journey from stardom to scandal to acceptance in a sharp script by Richard D. Sheridan.

The writing is intelligent and acute, overflowing with deftly crafted phrasing that is, at various times, poignant, savvy, gentle and witty, without falling into clichés or sentimentality. Yet it is the performance of Matthew Marrs that brings the piece to life so wonderfully. In this one-man show he plays multiple roles, shifting between personalities at impressive speed. Even in rapid, sticomythiac dialogue, the swift changes in character are evident and it’s a joy to see Marrs craft memorable personalities with such apparent ease – accents, tones and mannerisms are all perfectly pitched.

Both the humour and the pathos are given plenty of space to breathe here: laughs come thick and fast from figures such as Hall’s father, the team’s PR agent and Welsh team-mate Jonesy (with his never-ending stream of inappropriate questions). Yet we are taken from uproarious laughter to total quiet within a moment, as Marrs delivers Hall’s internal bewilderment and struggle with delicacy.

Odd Shaped Balls runs at the Old Red Lion until 25 June

Helped along by Luke W. Robson’s wonderfully detailed set design, Sheridan’s play is utterly believable. It presents no neat solution to Hall’s dilemmas, nor does it create one-dimensional characters or allow us to fall into the traps of stereotypes. ‘Lad culture’ is truly on display in the early scenes, with rapidly-downed pints, sexually explicit conversations and raucous chants. They’re scenes that will feel pretty familiar to anyone who has been in a student bar or sports clubhouse when a (usually male) team is ‘out on the lash’, as they might say. Yet when push comes to shove, Hall’s team – as in-your-face, inappropriate and crude as they may sometimes seem – rally round and are on the whole incredibly supportive of him. After all, it’s 2016, progress has been made and the world isn’t split down the middle into macho homophobic rugby players and liberal arty types. The issues are more nuanced: how can Hall be true to himself without becoming the role model he never asked to be? Can he love both Dom and Claire at the same time? Are love and attraction the same thing as sexuality? And how can he feel so at home in the rugby world but so misaligned with its definition of masculinity?

Sheridan’s script and Marrs’s superb performance tackle these questions with skill and care, giving us a thoroughly enjoyable hour of theatre as they do so. A hilarious, sensitive and moving work with its finger firmly on the pulse of the issue.

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