Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to Out of Joint director Max Stafford-Clark about the new co-production with National Theatre Wales, Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage.
Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is the story of two Welsh institutions, both bruised, but not beaten, by media speculation. One is Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas, the former captain of the Wales rugby team who amassed 105 caps and is now the world’s most prominent gay sportsman. The other is his home town of Bridgend.
Working with Thomas and young people in Bridgend, some of the UK’s most exciting theatre companies – National Theatre Wales, Out of Joint, London’s Arcola and Cardiff’s Sherman – have teamed up to tell a story about sport, the media, secrets, life and learning to be yourself.
“Meeting and working with Gareth made us realise just how much he provides a role model for young people. We ran workshops in our research and development period in which we talked to a number of young people and to Gareth himself so the two stories are interlinked.
“The other strand to the story is the 2006 epidemic of teenage suicides near and around Bridgend. And so with the Bridgend suicides it wasn’t a story unless there was some kind of satanic internet evil cult. So in both cases the pressure of the media was quite considerable. It’s quite clear that the tabloids were totally unscrupulous – they tried to hack Gareth’s phone, they made every attempt to hound him.”
The subject of sport may seem a bit of a departure for Stafford-Clark and writer Robin Soans (A State Affair, Talking With Terrorists), both of whom are renowned for agitprop angst.
“I hadn’t thought of it in those terms,” Stafford-Clark admits. “But of course the subject matter is fresh and in that sense it’s a departure for all of us.” And the fact that Stafford-Clark was a rugby player is a revelation, too. “I played at the University in Dublin,” he recalls. “And then I played when I worked at the Traverse for Edinburgh Wanderers.”
In addition to its sporting pretext, the show looks at the socio-political crises in South Wales. “Gareth’s was an issue of sexual persecution whereas the young people were facing mass unemployment in the whole of the South Wales area. So they were both dealing with low self-esteem, the young people were self-harming and families were breaking up.
“Bridgend has factories closing and the mining has departed so there is no industry which leads to social problems. It shows the devastation caused by Thatcher’s marketisation which left behind it this trail of social problems. As a depressed area it has ramifications for today too because the current Tory party believe in marketisation and as coal is imported from Poland and clothes are made in the Philippines the industry is being stripped.”
But this is no soap-box rant and nor does it dwell on the negative.
“The play is very funny and there is a lot of humour and life in it and in the end it is a celebration of resilience and courage in facing these problems,” says Stafford-Clark. “You see very ordinary people as well as one extraordinary person dealing with similar problems of identification and self-worth and they come through that.”
It also bemoans the demise of small town rugby teams. “Each small Welsh town had their own team so there was a sense of community and worth. Now that they’ve gone into regions that’s been lost. In 1981 Bridgend beat Australia, it’s extraordinary.”
And, of course, there is a minority at most sporting events hell-bent on trouble. “Gareth had much homophobic chanting directed at him personally when he was playing rugby union in Cardiff but particularly when he was playing for Wrexham Crusaders in rugby league and at Castleford. What happened was rather extraordinary because every one of the homophobic chanters was banned by the Castleford club.
“Gareth was not only the finest player of his generation in Wales but in international rugby he made a huge impact too. He captained the British Lions so it’s a story about an extraordinary man who goes through quite a troubled time.”
By Rich Jevons
Photos by Robert Workman
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