A modern variation on Golden Boy, Clifford Odets’s fable of a black boxer punching his way out of the ghetto into fame and misfortune, Roy Williams’s arresting new play at the Soho Theatre, Joe Guy, offers a similar morality in the story of a brilliant young black British footballer who makes it big and messes up.
Ten years is all it takes to go from no-one to big gun, and we start near the end with Joe Boateng – the stunning young actor Abdul Salis in what is surely a career-defining performance – larging it up in an interview with a white female journalist (Pippa Nixon) while his minder Buddy (Mo Sesay in the first of three beautifully rounded portrayals) high-fives and “yo-mans” in the background.
We have seen some dreadful headlines over the recent years of cash-fuelled debauchery in the Premiership that implicate players in drugs, drunk driving and after-match rape scenarios in plush hotels. This whole sorry state of the game is evoked by Williams in Joe’s story, and he also introduces the black-on-black tensions between someone like Joe of Ghanaian origins, and his Nigerian counterparts.
We flash back to Joe flipping burgers in a high street café, then go forward from one tremendous scene on the pitch where, in the dug out, Joe is joshed by the star player on the wane, Carlton “The Blaster” Thomas (Sesay again) while the banter with the white manager (Michael Brogan) is conducted in that easy mix of obscenity and racism that reveals how people have lost all respect for each other and their marginally shared language.
Joe comes off the bench and scores a beauty which of course Carlton claims was meant to be only a cross. The dark side of the beautiful game is developed in the locker room with the numbskull white player Rod Campbell (Joseph Morgan) joining in and all three removing to a hotel with a girl groupie where, as they say, “things get a little out of hand.”
The truth of what happens doesn’t conform to cliché, and Williams shows how, in trying vainly to rectify his relationship with the mother of his child (Syan Blake), Joe learns too late the perils of a life style that has outstripped all common yardsticks of decency and respect.
The production by Femi Elufowoju Jr for the British African company Tiata Fahodzi (commemorating ten years of existence, in association with the New Wolsey, Ipswich, and the Soho Theatre) is a new writing highlight of the year, and is cleverly designed by Yukiko Tsukamoto to suggest all the locations equally successfully.