Once again the Old Red Lion hits the nail of everything pub theatre should be on the head, housing Richard D Sheridan’s Odd Shaped Balls. Another punchy, socially relevant and boundary-bashing production. It’s about the relationship between professional sport and shadowed homosexuality presented through a professional rugby player protagonist James Hall (Matthew Marrs). That’s the very basic premise: layered on top of that are the inherent pressures of success and fame and the double-edged, magnifying glass of the age of social media. More important and intricate than all of that, Odd Shaped Balls is about one boy, one person, one human whom we can all recognise, who is struggling to find who he is in the fog of what others think he ought to be.
The joy of Odd Shaped Balls is the amalgamation of those layers and how those layers are presented. And how they are presented is in yet more layers, the first of which is the glorious set. I have banged on about this before, but there is nothing I love more than walking up a wonky staircase that’s dressed in a gaudy carpet, past a less-than-aromatic gents’ bog, into a room that is secretly an attic painted black – and seeing it transformed. That’s the magic: well, it’s part of it, and in this case it’s a bloody great chunk of it. This tiny, dingy room becomes a rugby club pub, a changing room, a locker room, a parental sitting room and a rugby pitch all in one. I mean all in one, as none of it jars; it fits together as one entity. Marrs moves from room to room, from scenario to scenario, with the kind of smoothness that can only come of a perfect set. It’s a set so fine-tuned that it takes a one hour fringey show in a pub in north London to somewhere altogether more West Endy.
Marrs harmonises with that and then goes on to harmonise with himself, as he fills that short hour of the one-man run around with at least six characters. With characters of varying genders, ages, regions and sexualities, he flits from one to another without so much as batting an eyelid. Saying that, these changes are all vocal, using accents and tones; he changes very little physically. But he is a bulk of a rugby playing man, as his central character dictates, and he did not miss leg day.
I am in two minds about the continuous character flitting. In one respect this narrative about the prevailing hindrances of public perception maybe demands a range of perceptions: a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a player, a coach, a PR guru… But do we need all of them? I’m inclined to say no. Not in a show that’s only an hour long, and not when there’s barely enough time to get to know and care about the protagonist. Marrs is admirably seamless in his transitions, but some are undoubtedly more successful characterisations than others.
This is the smallest of gripes in what is otherwise the pinnacle of fringe theatre.
Odd Shaped Balls is playing until 25 June. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website. Photo: Luke W. Robson