From its marketing, it would be easy to dismiss Gypsy Queen as another play confronting the latest ‘issue’ in a new and unexpected way. We’ve watched plays that frame homosexuality alongside football and rugby and I will admit that, when walking into Hull Truck’s studio theatre, I was prepared for exactly what I had seen before. What I wasn’t prepared for is what Gypsy Queen actually is; a deliciously irreverent play that truly doesn’t hold its punches.
The play follows George O’Conner (Rob Ward) and Dane Samson (John Askew) as they train at the same boxing gym and perhaps discover more there than just how to deliver a good clean punch. It’s hard to say much more about the plot without giving the game away, but I will say that Ward, who also wrote the play, has skillfully avoided almost every cliché. Gypsy Queen’s script is startlingly original. By turns, it is moving, witty and sexy. It doesn’t flinch away from the tough topics tackled within its breathtaking ninety minutes, but neither does it over stress them. Dane and George are gay. This is a major driving force of the narrative, but this does not define them. They are people first, and gay men second.
Ward and Askew deliver chameleon-like performances, slipping easily between generations and genders. A particular highlight is Askew’s brilliant performance as George’s mother. They deliver high theatricality in a way that feels completely naturalistic. Amongst the physical theatre, executed with all the athleticism required of a play about boxing, the poetic monologues and the accentuated characterisation, there is a genuine human heart. It is unpretentious in delivering an expression of true human feeling.
All of these elements alone would make a pretty stunning play, and Adam Zane’s direction only brings it together. In his careful hands, Gypsy Queen sings. Its rhythms are fast paced and staccato, never stalling. Even the scene changes are filled with comic moments. The staging, the script and the performances move in perfect motion. The pairing of sex and boxing is especially brilliant, all of Ward’s pertinent deconstructions of masculinity are beautifully expressed in Zane’s staging.
Perhaps occasionally, the storytelling is a touch on the nose. Perhaps the boxing sequences are sometimes a little corny. If I were to be especially picky, I am sure I could find many quibbles with the production. I have to wonder, however, why should I be? It has been a long time since a piece of theatre has genuinely moved me the way that Gypsy Queen has. I caught myself holding my breath more than once, and I know that I am not alone in that. This play is a prime example of how good British theatre continues to be.
Gypsy Queen is playing until 16 February, and is touring until 26 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Hull Truck Theatre website.