Take two young and handsome actors, train them up as boxers and strip them off in all the publicity materials, and you are going to get a lot of clicks. But however titillating the optics are, they are not the real draw here.
Rob Ward and Ryan Clayton have the talent to more than match their looks and generate a whole world of characters between them, each with equal conviction. Whilst there is plenty to please the eye in Gypsy Queen (there is a nudity ‘warning’), it is the quality of the performances that stands out.
Dane is a boxer being trained by his father Vic. In the past, Vic talent scouted street scrapper George’s father and transported him from bare knuckle fighting to the formal athletic demands of the professional ring. It was a disaster. Now Vic is trying to sign up George, flattering him that, unlike his father, George has the natural talent to be, “a fighter and not a scrapper”.
Dane is about to be flung into a world of Oedipal rage by the arrival of “Gorgeous George” in his father’s gym, but ends up giving George an aggressive, knee trembling hand job instead. And so an unlikely boxing romance is born. The course of Dane and George’s lives as they try to make sense of who they are to each other and to their families is the backbone of the rest of the play.
Ward invests Gorgeous George with a clever mix of bravado and vulnerability, squaring up to anyone who calls him a “Pikey” one minute and then struck dumb by his clumsy, intense attraction to Dane the next. The scene where he is literally taught how to make love for the first time is incredibly moving and sad. Clayton gives a genius set of performances, brilliantly funny in playing both George’s mother and the sixteen girl she’s trying to set him up with in one scene, captivatingly intense as Dane flailing as his world falls apart and nuanced and resonant as Dane’s troubled father.
The strength of the performances are, of course, also a tribute to director Adam Zane. Zane gets the tone and quality of each scene exactly right. Some of the transitions between scenes, however, are a little clumsy and a repeated lengthy repositioning of parts of the set really doesn’t pay off and often gets in the way of the flow of the action.
The script is well paced, funny and candid. After two years development, its exploration of this world on intense masculine codes seems well grounded. The focus on the love story between George and Dane is perhaps a little lost in the third act and Dane’s journey into open acceptance a little underwritten, but as a whole this is a solid and sensitive script.
The Oldham Coliseum is making welcome braver choices in how it programmes its studio space. Plays like this demonstrate the success of their new approach. Gypsy Queen is well acted parable about the complexities, pleasures and perils of masculinity, fatherhood and sexuality. It is, without doubt, a knockout.
Touring nationally until August 2017.
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Words: Stephen M Hornby