Three Stones Media's production of Broken Time provides much for both fans of rugby and the uninitiated to enjoy. But while Mick Martin’s play scores a try, it doesn’t quite manage the conversion.
Set in the fictitious Yorkshire town of West Broughton during the late 1890s, Broken Time centres on the erosion of amateurism in the sport and the struggle that was taking place in the years preceding the formation of the Northern Union and the creation of rugby league. What drives the conflict is the principle of ‘broken time’, where working men were paid for the wages they lost when taking time off to play rugby, which some viewed as backdoor professionalism.
While rugby originated in the public schools, it was adopted by the working classes, and it is this world that Broken Time portrays. Here, the sport is reserved for the ‘men from the mills’, who take to the rugby field on Saturday afternoons and become elevated to the level of heroes. It’s very much a ‘them and us’ scenario in which the middle classes are given short shrift and anyone with a ‘posh’ accent is held up for ridicule.
The story itself is played out between the local mill owner, and chairman of the rugby team, who wants to elevate his men, and his town, to great things, a puritanical reverend who wants to clean up the game and the various players. In this regard, the play succeeds in encapsulating these divergent interests and conveying them in an accessible way.
Non-rugby enthusiasts, however, may find it hard to appreciate the passion the sport inspires, and therein in lies one of the fundamental problems with Broken Time. While valiant efforts are made to portray the on-field action, with credit due to director Conrad Nelson and movement director Adam Sunderland, there’s no real substitute for the visceral physicality of the game. And without that, something feels lacking.
It wouldn’t be such a problem if the drama off the field is sustained throughout the two and half hour running time (including interval), but the ball is fumbled a little during the second half as the story loses momentum.
The line of defence is also weakened by the distracting and unconvincing romantic plot strand between Bessie, an aspiring music hall performer with a dubious past, and Lewy, a Welsh miner drafted in and paid under the table to turn around West Broughton’s fortunes.
While these characters feel under drawn and flat, otherwise the performances are uniformly strong across the multi-talented cast, with Howard Chadwick especially effective as mill owner, Dalton, and Michael Hugo convincing as the shady Stockwell.
As is often the case with period work, at times this it does feel a little too modern in tone, but overall the script is infused with humour and authenticity.
Judging by interval chatter, Broken Time is proving popular among die-hard fans of the game, but this is more than just a ‘play about rugby’ and it deserves credit for the way in which it tackles an interesting chapter in English history.