Fixed Foot Production’s take on John Donelly’s critically acclaimed 2014 play The Pass takes you immediately into the often toxic world of sports, masculinity, and queerness. From the get-go, this production, spanning over twelve years and three different hotel rooms, deftly navigates the rise of a celebrity footballer and asks us, what do you lose when you’re so determined to win?
When first put on in 2014, The Pass offered a seemingly sympathetic look at Jason, portrayed with a charismatic charm by Ben Chapple, and the pressures faced within both sporting and celebrity culture by closeted men. Over six years later, director Ed Wightman offers us a more nuanced understanding, shying away from encouraging his audience to sympathise with Jason and instead questioning the excuses we consistently make for white gay men. Chapple’s charm in the role is infectious. That, accompanied by his self-hatred, could so easily be used to excuse him from the blatant racism, homophobia and sexism he engages in. It could paint him as the sympathetic tortured soul we have so often seen represented on stage, but it doesn’t. This production’s appeal is that it doesn’t use queerness as an excuse, for what is merely an explanation.
The production has its highs and lows, with Cassie Howarth’s portrayal of Lyndsey, and Tom Rodgers’ Harry, welcome guests into the hotel room. They bring not only comedy, but in their humanity, a delightful sense of the personal to a show which revolves largely around the professional. Through them we see the world beyond. They both perform the roles exquisitely with believable life behind their characters. Hamish Elliot’s design is impressive, the creation of three hotel rooms in the space done seamlessly and with an expert touch. It’s telling how the rooms become barer the further down the rabbit hole of stardom and self-indulgence Jason goes. On top of that, Daryl Wallis’ sound design is nostalgic and entertaining, offering welcome brevity (Ricky Martin’s She Bangs is a consistent bop throughout) and Matt Cox’s lighting gives us much needed moments of camp ambition in a play which otherwise would risk being bogged down by insularity and self-seriousness.
Deng Deng brings a vulnerability to Ade which, while sometimes faltering, couples well with Chapple’s steadfast “for the lads” attitude, and teases out some of the play’s most beautiful moments.
Wightman’s direction is strongest in its moments of movement and touch. For a play centred around the intersection of sport and queerness, it’s unsurprising that these moments of lingering hands (boyish wrestling, a hug which stays for a few moments too long) stand out. A longstanding appreciation of the inherent homoeroticism of sports is employed well, as characters and audience alike question what’s ‘just having you on’ and what’s real.
The production falters in the moments where it refuses to let its characters (and audience) breathe. Temptations of queerness live in the breath, in the moments where nothing is said. Often we skip over these moments where desire becomes thought, and thought becomes action. It’s these moments wherein we see Ade and Jason on stage together, existing without being undercut by a need to rapidly progress forward, that the tension is palpable and both the play and its actor’s shine.
Wightman and the entire team should be commended for graphicly portraying the fallout of internalised homophobia and their crafting of an adroit character study. While far from perfect, Donelly’s script gives enough to play with; Wightman’s take, while inherently trapped in the 2000s setting, still manages to feel fresh and relevant. As part of the 2021 Mardi Gras season, it makes a fine addition. Though, it consistently feels like the script could be, and should be, saying more about the queerness which pervades the production to its very core. I suppose some may say that’s the point, how little queerness can be discussed in this context, but as a play the lack of intricacy comes across more one-note than clever. The play lacks an authenticity of the complexity should be inherent to this story. While it manages to go beyond just being an atypical tragic gay storyline — the ball remains firmly in that zone.
The script feels less like a queer play that interrogates the struggles of its main characters sexuality, and instead a character study where our main character is implied to be gay. In saying that, thankfully, Wightman doesn’t attempt to contradict this lack of presence either and force hyper gayness where it doesn’t exist. Instead, he leans into this world where queerness only exists on the sidelines, offering us the barest intimate moments of touch and lingering looks.
The Pass is a well-thought out glance into the complex world of queer masculinity and celebrity sporting culture and well worth… taking a pass at (get it). As we leave the theatre we’re left asking not so much, ‘how much are you prepared to lose in order to win?’ as the show’s tagline suggests, but rather what excuses are we prepared to make for ‘winners.’