Review: John Donnelly’s The Pass, at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Russell Tovey as Jason, Gary Carr as Ade. Photo Manuel Harlan

Russell Tovey as Jason, Gary Carr as Ade. Photo Manuel Harlan

John Donnelly’s The Pass, currently playing at the Royal Court Upstairs, was pushed into the spotlight as the play about a gay footballer. This is a good media hook but it’s selling the play short. Without ignoring attitudes and issues around homosexuality and football, Donnelly delves deeper into his characters to find universal questions: What would you sacrifice for success? How do you form human attachments if the world around you doesn’t allow for weakness, mistakes, human frailty? Can you ever find your way back if you take the wrong turn?

Donnelly approaches these questions with a lightness of touch, where loss is poignant because happiness is within reach and present. This is probably the biggest achievement for play and production: the characters are mischievous, sexy, playful and the play has their youthfulness and banter at its heart. This is not an abstract notion: the warmth of human interaction is as present as the warmth of bodies. (The production was reviewed by Heat magazine. I am not facetious in saying this is an extraordinary feat).

John Tiffany directs with the bubbling unconstrained physicality of youth. There is everything from skipping rope to goofy water fights, finely balanced against moments of coldness and the shadows of a less innocent world. The set, representing a hotel room with a balcony on one end and the shower on the other, is stretched between the audience. A bit like an arena where we are the sport spectators and sometime culprits to both the cruelty and mischief of this world. (Watch out for Russell Tovey cheekily and briefly sitting on people’s laps).

Tovey, known for playing easygoing mellow characters, uses his facility for uncomplicated charm to lure the audience in darker places. His Jason starts as a happy-go-lucky teenager and while the exterior remains largely unchanged, his choices start eating him from within. He is in turns explosive and forlorn, scary, relatable and sympathetic. Gary Carr’s clear-eyed openness is a vivid presence in an otherwise hostile suspicious world. Lisa McGrillis’ Lyndsey is defiantly optimistic, the way only someone with insight into the darkness can be. Nico Mirallegro’s Harry finds that scary place a teenager can find, where there is no limits to happiness, drive and the abyss.

Other observations about the production: the play comes up with a Jimmy Saville joke (is this the first time a play alludes to this case?). And – this is a minor SPOILER – pay attention to the passing of the time. At the end of the play, think back to the first scene and how cleverly it’s placed in its time but without giving anything away.

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