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Odd Shaped Balls (Old Red Lion Theatre, London): Review

odd shaped balls Truly scrum-tious. Matthew Marrs as Jimmy Hall in 'Odd Shaped Balls'. Photograph: Courtesy of Luke W. Robson.

Exceptional and inspirational, Odd Shaped Balls’ delving into homophobia in sport is complex, daring, and riveting: a premiere league play.

Jimmy Hall is the team’s star player, a promising sportsman who has helped make them break into the premier league. But Jimmy has a secret: he has a secret gay lover which he has been seeing behind his wife’s back. One misunderstood meeting with the manager, and Jimmy’s sex-life is national news. But asides from avoiding the glares of the press and the homophobic chants, can Jimmy figure out who he is, Odd Shaped Balls and all?

odd shaped balls

Drop the kick. Matthew Marrs as Jimmy Hall in ‘Odd Shaped Balls’. Photograph: Courtesy of Luke W. Robson.

Writing

This wouldn’t be the first time I reviewed Odd Shaped Balls. I reviewed it some years ago for the now defunct What’s Peen Seen? as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre. I loved it then, giving it an effusive five star rave, and I really love this current incarnation produced by Plane Paper Theatre. It’s easy to be cynical and just say that I rant lyrical about Odd Shaped Balls because a) it’s LGBT b) I’m Welsh and therefore am culturally contracted to foam at the mouth about rugby c) there’s a topless rugby player in it. Asides from the fact that I have “Ben Cohen naked” saved as a go-to Google image search, making c) redundant, Odd Shaped Balls isn’t just something that has merely an LGBT and/or sporty appeal: it’s an all-round brilliantly written piece of solo theatre that goes beyond the issue of sexuality in an incredibly engaging manner.

The most surprising and rewarding aspect of Odd Shaped Balls is that it isn’t a shallow story of: guy comes out, guy has crap time with the media, everything is then ok, THE END. Writer Richard D. Sheridan actually spends a lot of time and energy in painting as realistic a portrayal of the tribulations of being pushed out of the closet as possible to build an imagined but empathetic and accurate scenario; the team mates who are supportive but so entrenched in a macho culture they get more wrong than right; questioning the role and responsibilities of role models in sports; cyber-bullying; people generally being homophobic dicks (a given); career prospects in sport as an out player; and, most surprisingly, the fact that Jimmy isn’t just automatically gay. Part of Odd Shaped Balls is Jimmy trying to understand his own sexuality to the point where the question of whether he is bisexual or homosexual is something that’s left wonderfully unanswered.

With this intelligent and intricate portrait of complicated real life issues, Sheridan also writes characters with just as much detail, observation, and imagination. Each feels incredibly real, and their reactions and interactions with Jimmy are totally organic. Not to mention, Sheridan injects plenty of natural and often hilarious bits of tongue-in-cheek humour, making the sometimes dire conundrums of Jimmy feel that bit closer to earth and easy to connect to. The only possible criticism is that being a solo show where one actor plays a gaggle of characters, that there’s a propensity to get confused as to who’s who. But thankfully, Plane Paper’s production and Matthew Marrs’ performance ensures that this simply doesn’t happen.

The result is that Odd Shaped Balls is a piece of theatre that is very difficult to not engage with. It’s funny, thrilling, touching, and truthful. You’re rooting for Jimmy the entire way, sharing in his troubles and feeling the distress and heartache. But Odd Shaped Balls, for all the difficult and hurtful things its deals with, is a play of constant hope. Even if the ending is as open ended as Jimmy’s sexuality, you find yourself riled with ecstatic optimism and warmth from boot-tip to cap. You can’t get a more exhilarating and perfectly written piece of solo theatre than Odd Shaped Balls.

Odd Shaped Balls

In da club (house). Matthew Marrs as Jimmy Hall in ‘Odd Shaped Balls’. Photograph: Courtesy of Luke W. Robson.

Direction & Production

As much as the production of Odd Shaped Balls is great here, I know from experience that it simply doesn’t need as much as Plane Paper has put into it. The last time I reviewed it, all there was was a changing room bench and a couple of props: Sheridan’s writing and the actor’s performance are integral to the show and can carry it 110% if needed. In saying that, Luke W. Robson’s detailed and thriving set melts together rugby pitch, clubhouse bar, changing room, and manager’s office. It gives Odd Shaped Balls a brilliant sheen, especially with the amount of paraphernalia and detail that has gone into these nugget recreations. It may be surplus to the play, but you can’t say that it doesn’t look great or adds nothing to Odd Shaped Balls veneer.

Most important here, though, is Robbie Butler’s lighting design and Tamara Douglas-Morris’ sound design. As well as visually and aurally colouring and filling in the imaginations of places and atmospheres from pitch to pub to home, they also help define scenes and timeline switching when it comes to flashback, ensuring the audience never become confused.

Andrew Twyman’s direction is one that keeps Odd Shaped Balls as dynamic as a rugby game itself: a constant energy that pushes through, but slow down at points to enable the audience to really sit down with Jimmy as a character and understand and emote with what he’s going through. It’s these moments where Twyman lets Marrs do their work as Jimmy, where the audience feed off of the intensity of feelings in a scene and Marrs strikes a stirring core of understanding, that make Odd Shaped Balls so exceptional and unforgettable.

Odd Shaped Balls

Chairman of the balls. Matthew Marrs as Jimmy Hall in ‘Odd Shaped Balls’. Photograph: Courtesy of Luke W. Robson.

Performance

Marrs gives a tremendous performance as Jimmy and the host of those around him. Marrs’ ability to switch from one character to the next is not only effortless, but there’s a wealth of fantastic tics and characterisations that not only help define Sheridan’s cast, but bring out little comedies and endearing personalities: the stoney-faced Scottish manager, the wet insincerity of the soft-spoken media relations officer, and the tenderness of Jimmy’s lover.

But Marrs is most enchanting as Jimmy. There’s a real sense of complete empathy and deep personal connection to Jimmy’s plight that it radiates into the room. Marrs could easily be Jimmy himself he’s so natural and sincere: it’s difficult to think that they might not be! Marrs makes Odd Shaped Balls feel like it’s his story rather than that of a fictional character, with a believability and charisma that is unprecedented. Marrs’ performance is an unquestionably brilliant one of the things that makes Odd Shaped Balls such an astonishing and completely rapturous a show.

Verdict

There isn’t a wooden spoon in sight of Odd Shaped Balls. A pitch perfect play and performance that tackles and thrills with breakaway brilliance.

Odd Shaped Balls plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London, EC1V 4NJ, until 25 June 2016. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk.