Johnny Hall is a rugby player: an up-and-coming fly-half, surely on the brink of his first England call. He’s gifted with talent, confident on the pitch, and drinks with the best of them when he’s off it. But Johnny Hall is also gay. And when he’s outed by a former lover, his world starts to crumble – as the two things that identify him, his sport and his sexuality, clash in the harsh arena of a crucial match screened on live TV.
I’ll come back to that story in a moment, but before I do, let’s talk about the rugby. Odd Shaped Balls is the show I’ve been waiting half my life to see: a play about the sport I love, delivered by people who actually understand it. It’s not just that they know how the scoring works, and realise that a fly-half doesn’t look like a prop. No, they get it on every level – the unity of the team, the shame of the sin-bin, the thrill of a sixty-metre intercept try – and they bind it together into a dynamic physical performance, as exciting and involving as the best of sport can be.
They “get” the laddishness too: a stereotypically masculine culture, which the play doesn’t exactly celebrate but certainly doesn’t condemn. Evidently inspired by Welsh international Gareth Thomas’ true life story, playwright Richard D Sheridan builds an uncannily believable narrative, of how a man confused by his sexuality seeks clarity in a macho sport. But just like Thomas, Johnny discovers – when he finally accepts the truth about himself – that he feels an outsider in a community he’s come to call his own. It’s a sympathetic, respectful, but gently challenging script, which poses questions that are as relevant in daily life as they are on the field of play.
Chris Sheridan – who in a touching piece of real-world teamwork, happens to be the playwright’s brother – turns in a match-winning performance as the troubled Hall. He’s forceful, often aggressive, yet in a single gesture or a poignant aside can reveal the hurt underpinning the bravado. He switches convincingly into other roles, including a delicately-balanced portrayal of the scorned lover, and to top it all off he has some decent ball skills too. Director Charlotte Chinn deserves considerable credit for drawing the best out of Sheridan – capturing the essentials of both sport and leisure in what’s essentially a bare-bones one-man play.
Being picky, the accent Sheridan uses for the Irish coach isn’t entirely convincing, and the script does end with a shameless lump of exposition telling us what to make of it all. But never mind: two small infringements in 60 minutes of play is a stat which any team would be proud of. The calls are clear, the handling is sure, and the storyline muscles forward with the confidence of a marauding pack. And most of all, it’s an appeal for mutual understanding – a vital and topical message, with which all of us should pause and engage.