Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage (Arcola Theatre)

Max Stafford-Clark’s production, based on the life of rugby player Gareth Thomas, ends its tour at the Arcola Theatre

Daniel Hawksford in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage
Daniel Hawksford in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage
© Robert Workman

The title is what the referee of a rugby union match shouts at the opposing packs before they scrum down, and the command ends this cleverly organised documentary play by Robin Soans charting the tortured coming out of gay Welsh rugby icon Gareth Thomas – Alfie – with six actors in red shirts locking into position.

What's it all about, Alfie? Not just him, but his native community of Bridgend where the teenage suicide rate suddenly rises and Alfie himself contemplates jumping off a cliff.

Max Stafford-Clark's production for Out of Joint and National Theatre Wales – completing a long tour with a month's run in Dalston – brings in a strong speech from Neil Kinnock (Patrick Brennan) to make the connection as a symptom of social disintegration and economic decline.

This just about works, but there's no flinching Alfie's penchant for back rooms in London clubs or a gay sauna in Newport while achieving glory on the field and living a lie of heterosexual marriage. His story is only tenuously relevant to those of the two girls, Meryl and Darcey (Katie Elin-Salt and Lauren Roberts), who are victims of domestic violence and self-harming self-hatred.

But Stafford-Clark binds it all together by forging friendships between them – Alfie says he sees a lot of himself in "the girls who came through" – and literally passing the oval ball between the cast so they are all, in some respects, Alfie anyway.

These scenes of organic field play, with choruses of "Bread of Heaven", the flickering floodlights, the slapping of towels and locker room banter constitute the best "light ent" rugby show since John Godber's perennial Up 'n Under with added political content, family portraits and good jokes.

The best of these is that Alfie has to play in a changed strip of all-pink against Toulouse. He then cashes in on his "out" fame by appearing in pantomime in Wrexham, a high price to pay for his honesty.

As a former rugger bugger himself, Stafford-Clark – who entered the theatre when he discovered the Traverse on a rugby tour with Trinity College, Dublin, and ended up running the venue – doesn't miss a trick, or a sly forward pass, and his cast do him and Thomas proud. It’s a fascinating paradox in the best Stafford-Clark productions that a democratic ensemble contains such brilliant individual acting.

Rhys ap William is the beefiest Alfie, Daniel Hawksford the most sensitive, while Bethan Whitcomb is hilarious as Alfie's mum and Katie Elin-Salt dispenses an extraordinary, drawling Bridgend accent which is either alarmingly accurate or brutally satirical as she, like Alfie, hails from the place Kinnock describes as a mining town with no hinterland once the plug was pulled in the period of pit closures.

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage runs at Arcola Theatre until 20 June 2015