British playwright John Donnelly’s 2014 play is a real rollercoaster.
Its highs are vertiginous – those of modern day sports superstardom. Its lows are those of a man living a toxic lie in order to maintain his fame.
The Pass plays out in three sections, covering approximately 12 years.
In the first we meet two young footballers, Jason and Ade, who are sharing an East European hotel room on the eve of a trail game that might secure their professional futures.
There is excitement, naturally. And nervousness. But there is also a sexual frisson too. Jason is more confident in what he wants. Ade, the son of a British-Nigerian pastor, is, understandably perhaps, more reticent.
Years pass and we meet Jason again, in another hotel room.
This time we’re in Spain and Jason is a premier league player with an ego the size of his tabloid media profile. With him is Lyndsey, a chatty English table dancer he met in a gentlemen’s club. Jason – who is married, incidentally – feels he has something to prove.
The third act takes place in another hotel room. Jason is still a star but he’s a wreck: broken marriages; a busted knee; a raging drug habit. He has invited his old friend Ade to visit. His reasons for doing so are opaque but, as is Jason’s way, entirely self-serving.
When Donnelly wrote the play there were no openly gay soccer players in the English Premiere League. Few have ever come out voluntarily. Fear of homophobic backlash from fans, teammates and sponsors continues to keep gay athletes in the closet, as it does in most other sports. The tabloid press continues to maintain a beady “gotcha” watch.
Fresh in Donnelly’s memory would have been the story of Justin Fashanu, who came out late in his career as a player and later took his own life.
All that, in part, is what drives Jason to the extremes he goes to in The Pass. But Donnelly also supplies him with a level of narcissism, a sense of entitlement and racist attitudes (cloaked as humour) that makes him a very difficult character with which to sympathise.
It’s a demanding play to produce, requiring an intensity of physicality and emotion that’s no less athletic than the game itself. For the most part, director Ed Wightman’s cast rise to the challenge, or at least meet it more than halfway.
Ben Chapple is very good as the conflicted antihero. His Jason combines the smoothness of David Beckham, the unpredictability of Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne and the crash-and-burn arc of Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler.
Deng Deng provides supple contrast as Ade, who doesn’t make it as a soccer player but instead comes to terms with his true self and finds love.
Cassie Howarth contributes strongly as the garrulous dancer who believes she’s on a mission. Tom Rodgers gives the play a late shot in the arm as Harry, the star-struck hotel employee who is whisked (not unwillingly) into a drug-fuelled party that threatens to turn ugly.
There are times when you wish the energy of the piece was transmitted harder and further beyond the illuminated penalty box surrounding Hamish Elliot’s purposely bland and monochromatic set, but during this opening night performance an unplanned stoppage (a broken glass on stage) probably robbed the piece of some of the necessary momentum.