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The one-man show fighting homophobia in sport

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The battle against homophobia in sport has never been more widespread. Last month, rainbow laces were on show from Cryfield to Anfield to help stamp out abuse of gay sportsmen and women. This particular campaign has grown year on year since its inception in 2013, but on Friday 2 December Warwick was made aware of homophobia in sport through a very different medium.

This time the setting was Warwick Arts Centre, where the one-man show Odd Shaped Balls brought the issue to the stage. The date of 2 December was poignant: it was exactly three years after writer Richard Sheridan decided to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and on the same day that Team GB diver Tom Daley came out online. Since then the production has received five-star reviews and award nominations in abundance, but what’s it all about?

The show tells the story of a young Rugby player, James Hall, who is ‘outed’ in the media as gay

“The show tells the story of a young Rugby player, James Hall, who is ‘outed’ in the media as gay”, explains Matthew Marrs, the actor who plays Hall.

“The big difference is that he’s young, he’s at the start of his career and he has to deal with the family and media pressures.”

The show’s success is perhaps rooted in the experiences of Sheridan and Marrs, both of whom boast considerable insight into the ultra-masculine environment of the men’s rugby dressing room. Indeed, the plot draws heavily on an incident Sheridan himself witnessed when playing for his university rugby team, which he says “really opened my eyes”.

The plot draws heavily on an incident Sheridan himself witnessed when playing for his university rugby team

“An openly gay fresher joined and was bullied off the team by our club captain and president. I hadn’t witnessed abuse like that before and I had always thought of Rugby as being better than that. It set me off on this story of a professional rugby player dealing with these pressures.”

Marrs became interested in playing the role of James Hall for similar reasons: “I’ve got a strong background in Rugby and I’ve experienced these sorts of things, although not personally. I was also a dancer and went to an all-boys school, so you hear the odd phrase.”

“I had always wanted to do a one-man play to test myself – when this one came up I was like “yeah, let’s do it”. I know the stereotypical characters of a rugby team: the big captain, the little joker who’ll say those little annoying comments. At first it’s daunting; usually in a script you can say “oh, I don’t need to worry about those 10 pages”, but for this one I knew I would have to say every word for 60 pages. It was a challenge, but I’ve really enjoyed doing it.”

I thought that putting this character in isolation and to see the internal conflict as well as external influences would be quite moving

This much is clear throughout the performance. Marrs throws himself into a variety of roles, ranging from the anxious Hall to the narrow-minded team mate, Jonesy, who jokes about Hall’s sexuality – Marrs believes this is “probably the most common” dressing room reaction to a player coming out. But even the idea of a one-man show was partly a cost-cutting exercise.

“It was a financially viable option”, recalls Sheridan. “At the same time, I thought that putting this character in isolation and to see the internal conflict as well as external influences would be quite moving, and I think I was right. It has reached audiences that it might not have reached if we tried to go a different way with it.”

Many people touched by the show have waited around to meet Sheridan and Marrs after a performance, with Marrs recounting a specific example: “when we went to Edinburgh in 2015 an American came up to me with this big jumper with a load of signatures on. He was like ‘can you sign my jumper please, I’ve been to the fringe for years and I’ve got the signature of everyone who has performed”. I signed it and he just started crying – he told me how he had been through the same thing; he came out to his rugby team and experienced all sorts of hell and was just very thankful that he got to see it [the show]. Even though we may not have necessarily helped him get through it, it was quite nice that we hit the nail on the head.”

I think someone, very soon, will take the brave step to be the first Premier League footballer to come out

As awareness surrounding sexuality in sport grows, fewer and fewer people are – thankfully – enduring similar treatment. Ex-footballer Chris Sutton even said in October that there “has never been a better time” for a professional footballer to come out. The hostile atmosphere of football crowds is seen as one of the barriers to players revealing their homosexuality, but what do the guys behind Odd Shaped Balls think?

There will be better times in the future but I think it’s purely the best time because it’s the present day”, explains Marrs. “I think that’s testament to what various programmes and charities are doing. If a footballer were to come out now, the whole community would gather around him, or her – I know there are female footballers who are openly gay so it’s not as much as much of an issue there. But I think certainly for a male footballer I think he [Sutton] is absolutely right.

“I think now would be a great time”, adds Sheridan. “I remember pitching this play to someone on the day that Tom Daley came out and over the coming weeks Thomas Hitzlsperger and Casey Stoney came out and there was this snowball effect. When we were last in Edinburgh Keegan Hirst and Sam Stanley, two Rugby players, both came out and we really felt like we’d been on the inside. I think someone, very soon, will take the brave step to be the first [Premier League footballer] to do that and I have a lot of faith in that.”

You’re not alone and there are people to help you

When the first top level footballer does come out, there could be an even greater snowball effect than ever before. Whether at Premier League or Sunday League level, Sheridan stresses that sportsmen and women in a similar position to Hall will always have more support than they think.

“You have more allies than you know. That’s a strong thing to always remember. You’re not alone and one of the messages we say at the end of the show is that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing your place in the world. You will find it and there will be people there to help you.”

For Sheridan and Marrs, Odd Shaped Balls is clearly more than ‘just’ a production: it’s a means to tell those feeling isolated that they are not alone.

You can hear the full interview on RaW’s YouTube channel here.

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