Russell Tovey (Jason) and Gary Carr (Ade)
Russell Tovey (Jason) and Gary Carr (Ade)

Two teenage footballers are blooded in the first team in a European Championship game. One scores a great goal and goes on to fame and fortune. The other makes a mistake, is substituted and "let go" when his contract is up. One crucial pass could have made all the difference, to both of them.

Actually, there is another sort of "pass" on the eve of the big game, in a Bulgarian hotel bedroom, which is where playwright John Donnelly begins the play with Russell Tovey as Jason and Gary Carr as Ade. Will Ade be the next Dennis Bergkamp, or merely "the black Dennis Wise," an elegant maestro or an efficient aggressor?

That playfulness and banter of this first scene, with some low-level racism involving Nutella and moisturising cream, is skilfully channelled through a nervous edginess in this friendship, which leads us to the unknown hinterland of a footballer's secret life.

Is there one, you may well ask? Michael Owen, one of England's greatest strikers (and, as it happens, a quondam gay pin-up), once said he'd never read a book. The former Chelsea defender Graeme Le Saux astonished the world by saying he read the Guardian.

It's the singular merit of Donnelly's artful script, and of John Tiffany's elegantly poised production, that you never feel bludgeoned with the sort of "gay footballer" propaganda that might suddenly tick all sorts of boxes in the wake of the retired player Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out of the closet two weeks ago.

Lisa McGrillis in The Pass
Lisa McGrillis in The Pass

The friends re-unite in London in the last third of the play, 12 years later, when they have a wildly drunken knees-up - I had no idea there were so many outlandish party games to be had with buckets of alcohol - for old time's sake, joined by a dim hotel employee (Nico Mirallegro) who wants a "selfie" with Jason and somehow wrenches in a story about Jimmy Savile.

Jason is now anticipating the end of his brilliant career - he's played in Portugal and Germany and is divorced, with two children - and suggests that Ade, a plumber who still kicks balls about on Hackney Marshes, should do some work for him in Greece; but Ade, himself in a settled relationship, has other ideas on how to re-cap and recycle the past.

In the middle section, this time in a Spanish hotel bedroom, we see Jason, at the height of his fame, with a table-dancer (Lisa McGrillis) and more than a hint of a set-up, or a honey-trap. But this scene, too, develops into one of emotional revelation way beyond that old gag about George Best naked in bed with girls, champagne and "loadsamoney": "Where did it all go wrong?"

Donnelly knows his psychology and, importantly for a play about football and friendship, the details of the game; what's clever is that you don't have to be a fan yourself to understand exactly what's going on. Still, I can't see José Mourinho taking the lads along to Sloane Square for a night out before a big game.