Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage (Arcola Theatre, London) – review by Carole Woddis.

Welsh Rugby captain Gareth Thomas was at the peak of his career when the roof fell in and he `came out’ as gay.  Imagine.  A sporting legend in the Welsh mining communities where rugby was second only to chapel in reverence.  Rugby in Wales is a religion.

Thomas had been capped 100 times for Wales.  Yet he had always known about his sexuality, he now admits, since childhood.  But Sport is particularly harsh when it comes to parading one’s identity, nowhere more so than in rugby which shrieks testosterone, brawn, team spirit and masculine camaraderie.

Sporting heroes who have come out publicly are as rare as gay stars in Hollywood.  Thomas was a first for the UK and several have followed him since.  It’s hard to over-state the cultural change that has overtaken Britain – and now Ireland – in the past five decades regarding homosexuality.  So Thomas’ `coming out’ in 2009 was in every way, a big, brave, deal.

Now Max Stafford Clark and the National Theatre of Wales have turned it into a terrific verbatim piece of theatre, scripted by Robin Soans that doesn’t only look at Thomas’s story but sets it within the wider context of Thomas’s home town, Bridgend, and the problems that have beset the community since the collapse of the mining industry.

Stafford Clark’s track record in politically astute social drama needs no second urging.  His credits and history speaks for themselves, nearly 50 years worth of careful, committed scrutiny and inspired theatricality at the Traverse Theatre, as artistic director at the Royal Court and for the past twenty one years, of Out of Joint, the company he founded and still runs despite a debilitating stroke that would have pole-axed any lesser mortal.

But Stafford Clark’s theatre instincts are still as sure and as true as his love and talent apparently once was for rugby.  Put him together with the tried and tested actor and equally talented writer Soans (previous doc-dramas include Talking to Terrorists, Mixed Up North, A State Affair, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook and Life After Scandal), add Scott Graham, co-founder of physical theatre company, Frantic Assembly, mix with a super talented Welsh cast and you have one of the most spry, humorous and inspiring pieces of theatre this year.

Soans’ script takes us to the heart of what it is to be in the public spotlight.  As much as Crouch, Touch is about being true to oneself as a gay sporting hero, it is quite as much the story of the pressure of being at the centre of a media scrum, applied as much, at the time, to Bridgend itself, then in the middle of a spate of teenage suicides.  Press photographers camped everywhere.

Soans’ original script focusses on the unholy press/teenage suicide connection a tad more with the inclusion of Bridgend MP, Madeleine Moon, a character omitted from the staged production.  But the toxicity of the press and its accompanying publicity is still made and powerfully so in Stafford Clark’s spare, speedy production – one of his best – which mixes the story of two troubled girls and their battles to overcome depression and paternal suicide alongside Thomas’s.

Initially aimed at Welsh audiences, Crouch, Touch sits just as well in east London where Lauren Roberts’ psychotic, suicidal but ebullient Darcey and her inner battle to overcome her `voices’, resonates just as strongly.

Like the film Pride, you can’t help but fall in love with these characters and the unlikely conjunction of `being out’ in a tough Welsh community.  Soans has given them flesh, blood, and despite the darkness, hope.  In short, humanity, backed up by Stafford Clark’s and Graham’s wonderful warm, nippy production with its cast of three men, three women all playing `Alfie’ Thomas.

Indeed, there is no more (literally) uplifting sight than Bethan Whitcomb (playing Alfie’s mum) simulating Thomas being hoisted up in a lineout as a symbol of overcoming prejudice, homophobia or any other major external or internal battle – or the final scrum-down image – `crouch, touch, pause, engage’ – as a metaphor for personal and collective unity and responsibility.

Fantastic.  Do see.

Crouch, Touch, Pause Engage is at the Arcola Theatre to June 22, 2015

see www.arcolatheatre.com

© Carole Woddis.  May 2015.