National Theatre Wales’ Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is an odd melding of the life of a rugby player who is achieving gay divine status, Gareth Thomas, and the tragedy of young suicide in Bridgend.
I saw this play in a barely half full Sherman Theatre auditorium and it left me puzzled, a little annoyed and dissatisfied.
In the interval I had to speak to as many people as I could manage to try to work out if my reaction to the play was over personal and my problems with it based on the following facts. I lived In Bridgend and the Bridgend represented in the play bore little resemblance to the town I lived in, the people I worked with and how we felt, talked and lived. We did not see Bridgend as a mining town, there was a huge disconnect between the former market town with its aspirations to be a modern, growing urban community with high tech factories, such as Ford, and looking more East to the Vale and Cardiff than to the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore Valleys that then formed part of the Ogwr area and Ogmore parliamentary constituency. Yes, people followed the rugby team but even then the town’s identity was changing and has continued to do so. I also covered those, what are now former mining valleys as a reporter and that disconnect was palpable.
Secondly, I covered the 1984-85 miners strike and found the awful Neil Kinnock monologue in this play at best embarrassing and at worst, well, I cannot say but I am sure plenty of miners who lived through that strike with little, if any support, from the Kinnock-led Labour Party would love to.
Thirdly, I also worked as a journalist in Cardiff throughout the period of this play and found the representation of the media laughable. The reporter portrayed rather accurately, at least vocally, by Rhys ap William as “confronting” Gareth Thomas about his sexuality was a cheeky chappie young bloke trying to make it working for a newspaper that at the time probably did veer a little towards the over sensational side of journalism. I am not sure whether he is any longer in the industry and that episode (even if it was accurate) was (and still is) an aberration rather than representative of the media in Wales. Rather, Gareth Thomas’s sexual goings weren’t exactly unknown. I still wonder whether we gay journalists had a positive influence on the media in Wales and, probably far more influentially, whether the media knew not to attack Welsh rugby stars. Think the Sun and Hillsborough. We may no longer be a very religious nation but we still have our sacred cows.
But then this was a piece of drama and although the programme notes are packed with authenticity, firsthand accounts etc, and while much of it just did not ring true it needs to be viewed as a play.
Audience members I spoke to also knew the times all too well agreed about Kinnock, gay people and other journalists confirmed that Thomas sexuality was the worst kept secret in Wales and, most importantly were also scratching their heads about the two young girls discussing troubled childhoods and mental health problems.Who on earth were the two schoolgirls whose stories were being told alongside Gareth Thomas’s story? What on earth was the connection? Had it not been for the fact the girls had different names from the women in Gareth Thomas’ life we would have thought this was, say, his unfortunate wife’s Gemma’s life story, or someone else in the messy Thomas saga. This was compounded by the otherwise clever device of our players all taking multiple roles, including that of Gareth Thomas and Gemma at various times. Only after the interval was it clearer that the painfully supposedly similar life stories were not related and it was only the closing few minutes bring them together.
This completely separate story was an account of what became dubbed by London media (and I stress London) as the Bridgend suicides, even though they covered a significant geographic patch that vaguely centred on that town. By the way, I can vividly remember the affront taken by people in that town whenever it was referred to as “A Valleys town” or “in the Welsh Valleys”, “or a mining town” by the London media, going back to my previous point. The two stories sort of came together in the rather lacklustre final scene when the by now Gareth of the Church of Latter Day Gay Saints met them in some sort of shared experience counselling session.
Other audience members laughed at some parts of the story that made me cringe although the representation of Thomas’ friends and family and their dialogue was at times very witty and extremely well delivered. Daniel Hawksworth’s Compo was great and full of warmth and humour (he was the sort of mate I had when working as a journalist with the miners during the 1980s). Bethan Witcomb and Patrick Brennan were marvellous as Gareth Thomas’ parents often using that popular dramatic device of completely one another’s sentences and reinforcing what the other has just sad. I have no idea whether they were supposed to be portraying the parents as a combination of proud and over indulgent, exceptionally liberal and (like all the other characters in this odd coming out tale far) more sensible, switched on, tolerant, perceptive, generous of sprit and unselfish than the actual gay character.
I did find the story of the girl struggling with mental health issues absolutely captivating, wonderfully evocative and beautifully performed by Lauren Roberts. This story really did ring true and was by far the strongest part of the play, although, of course, in the selling of the show secondary to the Thomas element.
A someone who has both faced coming out, but in the 1970s when the world really was not a place for a teenager to be honest about his sexuality, live an openly gay life, apply for jobs in the hard-nosed media world as an openly gay man, work with miners as an industrial editor in the early 1980s as an openly young gay man, and live under the real threat of breaking the law every single day by having a sexual partner, be openly gay in public, with none of the equality, anti discriminatory laws we thankfully now have.
To me, the play showed this was a story of someone who, yes, was in the rugby where physical prowess is important, where there is male camaraderie and players run the risk of being taunted by fans and perhaps not being selected or, shock horror, not get nice sponsorship deals. But where was the context of this being a man in an extremely privileged position than a miner, or steelworker, or docker, or farmer, or builder (dare I say journalist?) or any one of myriads of other occupations that share the same macho ethos but who do not have protective family, friends, a well paid job, and the actual advantage of being famous, respected, popular and having the overwhelming support (or at least untouchable, sacred cow position) with the local media?
Similarly, having a long time ago had a mental health illness I found the comparison between a character in a play having a bad time coming out because of wanting to be someone or something different, or maybe being able to at least live two separate lives until it became obvious they would indeed collide, and a person with an illness that she could neither cope with, could not get others to understand and who had to fight every inch of the way to survive, as at best fanciful and at worst offensive.
So, to somehow divorce my own knowledge and experiences of the context of the play, what is now the Gareth Thomas mythology, of coming out at what was a far more difficult and dangerous time and as a teenager, of mental health itself, is exceptionally difficult. Rather, I can only say Robin Soans play staged director Max Stafford-Clark is magnificently acted by players of dexterity, skill, sympathy and adaptability, the play about the traumas endured by a teenager with mental health issues was beautifully constructed, and the Gareth Thomas element at times amusing and at others strangely rang untrue. Then as one piece of drama with two plots running alongside one another and eventually coming together, tortuous and confusing.
As another aside, when the “autobiography” the Gareth Thomas character holds up and says was lies from start to finish was first published I commented to my colleagues that it wasn’t exactly a full and honest account.
As they say, you can’t believe everything you read or hear or see.