Here's a thought: imagine footballer Wayne Rooney was gay. Would it matter? In a perfect world, of course not. Unfortunately, here we are at the beginning-ish of a new century and the Beautiful Game, our National Obsession, is still harbouring secrets that dare not speak their names. In sport, discussion of the thin blue line between ‘acceptable' masculine camaraderie and ‘undesirable' sexual orientation is still, it seems, being shown the red card.
To their credit, the FA, bless them, are trying to knock homophobia out of football, along with racism. Chris Chibnall's galvanising one-hander may be too parti-pris to convert the terrace's hardened gay-bashers. But it has a lot going for it and an emotional truth (about suppressed loin-stirring) that's a million miles away from gay stereotype.
For one thing, Chibnall's George, the ‘gaffer' and coach of fictionally struggling Third Division side, Northbridge Town, is a foul-mouthed if typical track-suited, steaming-up-and-down-the-touchline servant of the game and blokey bloke in Deka Walmsley's stunning tour de force.
In essence, a ‘coming out' play, Chibnall, creator and scriptwriter of BBC1's Born and Bred, is, however, far too canny to preach. He clearly knows his footie territory - the back-stabbing, the hypocrisy, the cover-ups – and his script is littered with one-liners that catch that strange patois of laddish abuse and sentimental cliché with coronary-inducing hilarity.
“If you don't move it,” George shouts to one of his imagined team, “you'll have my boot so far up your arse, the shoelaces will be coming out your nose.” Later, inevitably, we get football's national anthem, `You'll Never Walk Alone'.
On the whole, Chibnall's mix of dry Geordie humour with proselytising zeal works a treat, even if schematically, the cards are shamelessly stacked. George is caught not exactly with his trousers down but in the one-kiss embrace of his team's newly signed, over-excited (and gay) teenage protegé. It seems an unlikely scenario. So too the ‘set-up'; the moment – we never know how - snapped on camera, leaked to the local press, becoming headline news. The great scapegoating begins.
Keeping it taut yet laconic, Gareth Machin's production is clearly not for those of a non-sporting disposition. But the night I was there, all sorts – men, women, gay, straight - were having the time of their lives.
- Carole Woddis (reviewed at London’s Southwark Playhouse)