Odd Shaped Balls
Dir: Charlotte Chinn
60 min • Etcetera Theatre, London • From September 18-20, 2014
Laura Macdougall reviews
Sexuality in sport is still something of a taboo. Last year, in a controversial move, the charity Stonewall teamed up with bookmaker Paddy Power in their #RainbowLaces campaign designed to combat homophobia in sport, particularly in football. There are still no openly gay or bisexual professional male footballers in the UK. There hasn’t been one since Justin Fashanu who came out in 1990.
The situation is similar in men’s rugby, where there is also no out gay or bisexual player. Gareth Thomas, the Welsh international who came out in 2009, spoke not only of his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but also his surprise at his teammates’ reaction when he told them; they simply didn’t care. So why has no one else followed Thomas’ example? Statistically it’s unlikely that all other professional rugby players are straight.
In Edinburgh last month I saw a brilliant new one-man play which is based on Thomas’ coming out experience. Written by Richard Sheridan and performed by his brother, Chris, Odd Shaped Balls examines what it might be like for a professional sportsman, married , conventionally ‘masculine’ (in the Daily Mail’s sense of the word) to come out in the 21st Century, in the media spotlight, instant news and the ravenous hunger of social media.
Chris Sheridan plays James Hall, a star player with England prospects. He is married, but he’s been having an affair with a man. Writer Richard intelligently explores the pressure Hall is under as he passes each day in ‘fear’ and ‘suspicion’ – fear of what his family, teammates, coach and the wider world would think if they knew what he was hiding (he never thought that being a gay sportsman was an ‘option’). But Sheridan’s script is not one-note, and is not only bleak, though sport has much to answer for in that players still don’t feel able to be open about their sexuality. There are many moments of humour (Hall was robbed of his ‘Tom Daley moment’); the competitive, testosterone-fuelled atmosphere is brilliantly captured, as are the poignant moments between Hall and his loved ones; the therapeutic and addictive nature of sport is also something that is appreciated and explored.
Sheridan is also careful to keep the play even-handed, exploring all the varied reactions to Hall’s coming out, from the often surprisingly supportive to the many vile, homophobic reactions (usually voiced on Twitter). The media, however, comes off badly, as they all want a piece of Hall, and, because he was outed on a blog by his lover, he wasn’t able to break the news ‘on his own terms’.
Chris Sheridan gives a brilliant performance, not only as Hall but also as Hall’s wife, coach, various teammates, parents and lover. He moves smoothly between roles, switching accents and physicality, changing the look in his eyes. Some of the other roles feel a little thinly drawn in comparison to Hall, whom Richard Sheridan has written with insight not only into someone struggling with their sexuality but also as someone to whom their sport is just as important a part of who they are. Chris Sheridan captures this brilliantly, particularly in one tense scene that takes place during a game where the pressure is simply overwhelming and he spectacularly implodes.
Odd Shaped Balls packs a lot into a show that is only sixty minutes long. It is not just a ‘coming out story’, though it does offer a nuanced, informed and well thought-out portrait of what it might be like for professional sportsmen worrying about whether to publicly acknowledge their sexuality, and the varied reactions they might expect. Odd Shaped Balls also looks into the psychology of sport, the psychology of masculinity and heterosexuality and how our society conceives and constructs these ideas. It also considers our use of language, not only homophobic language but also society’s construct of the ‘fairytale’ of love, and how it can be damaging and misleading.
For all of our society’s recent legislative progress, Odd Shaped Balls reminds us that legislation can’t change people’s attitudes. Sometimes those attitudes might pleasantly surprise us, but all too often they confirm our worst fears about other people and how a single word can have devastating consequences.
Odd Shaped Balls is playing at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden, from 18-20 September. Click here for more information.