Equality within football is in a sorry state. The ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign deserves plaudits for its work in dragging the game out of its shameful escapades in the 70s and 80s, but the words ‘fag’, ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ are still commonplace on the terraces, aimed at a ref making a controversial decision, or a rival player appealing for a penalty. Thomas Hitzlsperger’s recent ‘coming out’ is undoubtedly a positive step, albeit a step taken after Hitzlsperger had hung up his boots. It’s all very saddening.
It is surely time, then, for theatre to explore this issue, as seen in the Royal Court’s The Pass, and Rob Ward’s one-man piece Away From Home, on tour and currently playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, tucked away just round the corner from Piccadilly Circus.
In his programme notes, Ward gives mention to his gay and football-passionate identity, and how he has struggled to marry the two in what can be a suffocatingly homophobic environment. I know exactly what he is talking about, as people are often surprised by my interest in football, seeing it as being at odds with a career in theatre. This is the problem in a nutshell: perhaps both worlds are reluctant to embrace each other, preferring the safer option of mocking and deriding the other instead.
I suppose a way to counter this is more theatre about football. But just perhaps not Away From Home, because despite the piece’s many merits – its heart and message of tolerance, the warm and charismatic performance that Ward provides – it just feels like a bit of a pre-season friendly, with nothing really at stake: one of those games that you could probably knock off early from as to avoid the final-whistle rush to the tube.
Ward plays Kyle, who is football-mad. His friends in the pub know that he is gay (a surprisingly positive addition to the plot), but they don’t know he’s a male escort. And that one of his clients is a top premiership footballer recently signed to their arch rivals (Ward and co-writer Martin Jameson don’t mention any teams specifically – why is this?). We meet Kyle’s parents: the well-meaning and pained mother and his gruff and icy father, one of those dads who seem to think that being gay may just be an awkward phase. Kyle’s relationship with Player X is as under-the-radar as possible, with secret encounters in hotel rooms and long car rides, while Player X maintains a public façade with a string of It-Girls. What we are delivered is a message that unless things change, gay footballers will never be able to sustain a long-lasting and meaningful relationship. This is a brutal fact. So why doesn’t it come across as punchy as it could be?
The ending is powerful enough. There’s a popular swipe against FIFA for their lack of action on the issue, Russia and Qatar hosting the next World Cups “is a middle finger to equality” and ultimately Player X is closeted because “he doesn’t have the balls to stand up to that kind of shit.” Perhaps the focus of the play should be the player, and perhaps Ward should play him instead. I for one would have found that more interesting.
Away From Home is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 28 March. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website.