In the macho world of professional male sport, particularly the various footy codes, it’s still difficult for gay athletes to be open about their sexuality, so many choose to hide it. Combine this with a ruthless ambition to succeed, and you have the prongs on which John Donnelly spins his play The Pass.
Ben Chapple and Deng Deng in The Pass. Photograph © Becky Matthews
The Pass premiered at the Royal Court in London in 2014. Set in three hotel rooms over the course of 12 years, the play follows the career of an English footballer called Jason (Ben Chapple).
We first meet him when he is 17 in a hotel room in Bulgaria which he is sharing with another young player called Ade (Deng Deng), the son of a British-Nigerian pastor. They are both vying for a place in a professional football team but there is only room for one of them. The game the next day will spell their fate. They are both pumped up, nervous, and finding it hard to sleep.
As they cavort, wrestle and tease each other, it quickly becomes clear that Jason is playing some kind of mind game with Ade, while a latent homoerotic charge hangs in the air.
In the next act, seven years later, we find Jason in a swankier Spanish hotel with a hyper, motor-mouthed table-dancer called Lyndsey (Cassie Howarth). Jason is now a superstar footballer and married with children. As the encounter unfolds, Donnelly keeps the plot twisting and turning. We’re not sure initially how much truth is being told, but Jason is clearly still playing games.
In the final act, Jason – now at the peak of his career but with a damaged knee and in thrall to drugs and alcohol – has invited Ade to his room by texting him with the offer of a job. A star-struck hotel bellboy (Tom Rodgers) gets sucked into an out-of-control party, as we witness the hollow, arrogant man that Jason has become.
Ben Chapple and Tom Rodgers in The Pass. Photograph © Becky Matthews
In The Pass, Donnelly explores the harm done when someone is determined to succeed at any cost, and is prepared to betray themselves and those around them to get what they want. While maintaining a tight focus, the play also takes in racism, celebrity and power.
Presented here by Fixed Foot Productions and the Seymour Centre, in a production directed by Ed Wightman and designed by Hamish Elliot, The Pass plays as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The first act hadn’t quite found its groove on opening night, with more tension to be found in the relationship between Jason and Ade. The production was then somewhat wrong-footed when a glass broke during the first scene change and Chapple subsequently trod on a piece of broken glass, with the audience asked to leave the auditorium. Mercifully he was fine and continued (with a large band-aid around his foot).
But as the second act settled, the play suddenly kicked in and found its grip, holding us in rapt attention until the end.
The British accents may waver at times, but once the production settles in Wightman draws convincing performances from a strong cast. Chapple does an excellent job of conveying Jason’s ambition, narcissism, sharp wittedness and obsessive fear of anything being divulged that might damage his career. He exudes a genuine air of danger, which coagulates into menace in the third act. Unable to be true to himself, Jason may be lonely but Chapple shows how any vulnerability Jason may have had has warped into ruthlessness.
Deng brings some heart and pathos to the play in the third act as Ade, who has found love and dignity in his life, and Howarth and Rodgers both nail their roles.
The Pass may reiterate a central theme, but it keeps us hooked with its clever, twisting storytelling.
The Pass plays at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until 6 March