Odd Shaped Balls has been substantially revised since its first outings in Edinburgh and London, and it is testimony to the quality of the production that the constraints of place and presentation disappeared under the focus and drive of the performance and took the audience to the centre of the drama in complete concentration, but with plenty of laughs along the way.

Odd Shaped Balls

There are risks in taking an issue currently in the news and then relocating it at the heart of a play. If it is played too obviously as a plea for sympathy and support, the audience feels manipulated, the request for commitment apparently unearned and manipulated. But if the pitch is too didactic and intellectual then the result can seem like Bernard Shaw at his most tendentious – a debating-society joust without human grounding.

All credit therefore to Richard Sheridan, writer of Odd Shaped Balls, for devising a format in which all aspects and viewpoints on homophobia in sport are discussed, while preserving the dramatic focus on the experiences and inner turmoil of one athlete.

The plot concerns the enforced coming-out of Jim Hall, star fly-half of the Chiltern Colts. Just as his team enter the Premier Division, and the first glimmers of a future England rugby career appear on the horizon, Jim has to confront the unwanted collision of his personal and professional lives. In denial to himself and others, Jim has developed two relationships in tandem, with girlfriend Clare and with Dom, an out gay man.

His coach detects that he has become ‘distracted’, and in a panic Jim jettisons Dom. This gets leaked online, and Jim’s world seemingly crashes to the floor in a welter of rejection, silence, awkwardness, and on-field mockery from the crowd which destroys self-belief and his ability to play.

Odd Shaped BallsYou might think from this summary of the initial sequences that this is a crowded play with many actors taking to the stage, but in fact all is voiced and embodied by one actor – Matthew Marrs – who over the hour-long running time takes you deep into the worlds of every character.

In the first five to ten minutes, while he settles into a rhythm and the audience get their bearings, it is a little confusing; but thereafter the show settles into a wholly absorbing flow, through the skilful and distinctive differentiation of the roles and the engrossing plausibility of the ‘dialogue’. Ultimately you forget that there is only one player to be seen, and we benefit from the solipsistic theatrical conceit which serves the valuable purpose of reminding us that Jim’s identity is the focus of his anguish and the confusion and distress of others.

A major reason why Odd Shaped Balls convinces is that before we even reach the issue of homophobia, the author and actor are highly sensitive to the general pressures that exist in the lives of athletes.

The relentless discipline of training, the need at this level for total focus, which can be so easily disturbed by anxieties off the pitch; the desperate plausibility of the self-censorship Jim imposes on himself, given the likely and actual reaction of press, public and family, the temptation to lose the self in the collective identity of the team – all these factors and more are woven into the drama and help to show convincingly why ‘coming out’ among sportsmen in mid-career is still so difficult.

Odd Shaped BallsMarrs uses few props or costume devices to suggest the different people in the drama – a range of accents and contrasted pacing and body language is sufficient. He captures well the bluster and anguish of the central character, the way in which rugby has acted as a kind of therapy to blot out the unanswered question of his identity, and how all certainties dissolve in the face of public scrutiny, even sympathetic. The puzzlement and clumsy sympathy of a best friend, the cold professional appraisal of the manager, the bafflement and humiliation of the girlfriend are detailed with care; and perhaps best of all, the shy love and pride of a father who lacks the language to express himself to his son.

Odd Shaped Balls also scores for leaving more questions than answers. Not only is the ending refreshingly ambiguous; so too is the question of how, why and whether sportsmen should become role-models or exemplars for issues outside their performance on the field of action.

Jim may have contributed to his own dilemma by postponing the collision between the two sides of his life, but what excuses or justifies the cynical appropriation of his personal life by the press? Why is his private life of any genuine public interest, as opposed to fuel for a salacious public scandal? And when exposed, is he obliged to become a symbol of liberation to inspire other young men in his situation, or can he claim a right to return to anonymity off the field? Finally, from the point of view of the spectators, which is essentially our own, why do we allow ourselves to fetishise and then demonise sporting heroes, in terms we would never permit for our friends and family?

Many awkward questions, here memorably framed alongside the human costs of the unthinking, conventional answers they all too often receive.

Odd Shaped BallsBut the point that seemed to re-emerge most insistently is that many sports still prioritise, often unconsciously, a certain type of masculinity, which is exclusive of gay identity, and until that definition is opened up, and the process of expanding masculine identity made natural, innocuous and free of fear, nothing much will change, whatever directions wider society may travel.

Lest this all seems remorselessly serious, it is important to note that the script is full of wonderfully ribald humour, and that – refreshingly – all the characters can take wry jokes against themselves.

Beyond the strength of the writing and acting, attention should also extend to the set design by Luke W. Robson. As so often here at the Old Red Lion, the restrictions of space serve to promote and enable great ingenuity. Within small compass we receive suggestive indications of a bar, changing rooms, domestic interior, and even rugby field, thanks to a small triangle of astro-turf under the feet of the front row of the audience. This is quite enough to allow Marrs to fill out these environments with his gallery of characters.

Odd Shaped Balls has been substantially revised since its first outings in Edinburgh and London, and it is testimony to the quality of the production that the constraints of place and presentation disappeared under the focus and drive of the performance and took the audience to the centre of the drama in complete concentration, but with plenty of laughs along the way.

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Odd Shaped Balls
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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…