Odd Shaped Balls at the Old Red Lion Theatre – Review

Matthew Mars in Odd Shaped Balls
Matthew Mars in Odd Shaped Balls (c) Luke W. Robson

Everyone has secrets. It’s the nature of life. Some of them can be pretty innocent – like inadvertently cheating on your Music CSE when you were 16 (and still only getting a Grade 2) – others can be more important and potentially have a devastating effect on your life. Odd Shaped Balls at the Old Red Lion Theatre Islington is a play that is centred completely around the latter scenario.

James Hall (Matthew Marrs) has hit the big time. He is the, to use an awful American expression, MVP of his rugby team and thanks to his efforts, the team has moved from the Championship into Rugby’s Premier League. James, is young, good looking, is respected by his coach and teammates and has the requisite beautiful girlfriend. To say this boy’s cup runneth over is putting it mildly. But James has a secret. Along with everything else, he is in a clandestine relationship with another man by the name of Dom. Nobody except the two of them know about this relationship and, so far, it has had no impact on James’ personal or professional life. But, as the team are reminded by a PR minder, things have changed now. The media wants to know all about this new side in the Premiership and their talented Fly Half around whom talk of an England cap has already begun to surface. Following a conversation with his Coach, James decides that he must end his relationship with Dom and lead the ‘normal’ life of a professional rugby player, with no distractions and all closet doors firmly shut and locked tight.

Unfortunately, James lives in the modern world, where a single entry by the friend of a friend on a blog post is that one small rock that starts an avalanche of social media speculation about James’ sexuality and suitability to be a rugby hero. At this pivotal moment in his life, James must decide how to react to the gathering storm and ultimately confront his own feelings about the direction he wants to take his life in.

Wow, just wow. What a play. Let’s start with the Set. Luke W Robson and his team have created one of the best sets I’ve ever seen in a pub theatre. Without overwhelming the acting space, the audience were confronted with a Rugby club bar, locker room, office/parental living room and portion of a rugby pitch and every single aspect of it was absolutely perfect. The attention to detail was something you would expect to see on a West End Stage. Fantastic.

Writer Richard D Sheridan has crafted a fascinating one act play that manages to create an extremely plausible scenario and take the audience along for a ride that never lets up from the start to the ending. James story is one that is waiting to happen and is realised in this production superbly. Between the writer and Director Andrew Twyman, there is a lot of action crammed into an hour but at no time does it feel rushed or that important elements have been missed out as James struggles to come to terms with his new life. Favourite moments from the script for me? Well, there were many, but I really loved James’ first conversation with his father after the storm broke which, reminded me so much of a very similar discussion with my own parents and James’ reaction to his father’s comment about not loving him any less was, I can say from personal experience, spot on.

Turning to our actor, Matthew Marrs was truly a wonder, Young, blond, good looking and with a physically fit body Matthew was the epitome of someone just starting out in their rugby playing career. James had a lovely sort of naivety about him – beautifully demonstrated in his pitch-side interview at the start of the show and this stayed with him, even as his life didn’t so much start to crumble as turn into the Titanic meeting an Iceberg in the Atlantic – and we all know how well that went. Matthew went through all of James’ emotional responses with a believable and genuine intensity that ensured the audience travelled the journey with him. A marvelous example of the actors craft at its best. Oh and while I’m on the subject of Matthew’s acting, I should point out that whilst riding the horrendous rollercoaster of James’ life, Matthew also plays every other character as well. He brought to life the team coach, teammates, Dom, his girlfriend and for all I know he probably recorded all the crowd noises as well. When they talk about young actors to watch, they really should have the name Matthew Marrs on their lips.

Like many people I have wanted one of the many – and let’s face it the numbers are there – closeted professional sportspeople to put their head above the parapet. To date, the majority of those that have have either been at the end of their careers or were in niche sports where they were already considered at the top of their game and the nation’s favourite. But, nobody in either of the two most popular team games has, as their career has really started to take off, come out. Having seen Odd Shaped Balls I can actually understand why. I loved the fact that the ending was left open, enabling the optimist, the pessimist and the cynic to all come up with the next stage of James’ life

Ultimately Odd Shaped Balls was a really fantastic and powerful show that approached a difficult subject with a wonderful mixture of humour and lip quivering emotion. Whatever your view on sportsmen coming out as LGBT+, and the implied life they then have to lead as role models, by the end of the play, you couldn’t help but wish James every success in the future and really appreciate the enormous power of quality writing, directing and acting to tell a story and tell it superbly. This was a really awesome production that deserves the 5 stars I have given it and then more.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Rugby player James Hall has the world at his feet. But when his biggest secret is revealed, his whole life begins to crumble around him, and James must decide if he has the courage not only to be true to himself, but also to be a role model for others. Odd Shaped Balls is a funny and poignant one man show that raises awareness of issues surrounding homosexuality in sport and ultimately asks the question: how would you feel if your sexuality prevented you from playing the sport you loved?’

Deciding the right time to come out can be a tough decision for anyone, but for those in the limelight in can be even more daunting. The decision can be entangled with fears of homophobic abuse and negative reactions from their teammates. In a recent study of over 9500 participants, only 1% of lesbian, gay and bi-sexual respondents felt they were fully accepted within sporting culture. Director Andrew Twyman says: “Odd Shaped Balls doesn’t just confront homophobia in sport, it stands up and shouts, lays bare every nuance of locker-room culture.” With the overwhelming support rugby star’s Sam Stanley and Keegan Hirst received when they came out last year, as well as the release of the Scottish LGBT Sports Charter last May, now has never been a better time for Odd Shaped Balls.

Odd Shaped Balls
31ST MAY – 25TH JUNE 2016

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