Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

“Gaffer” – The Public Reviews ****

Gaffer is an impressive act of performance with all twenty parts being played by just one actor. He carries a play that recreates the triumphs and disasters of life on the pitch and a narrative that moves the central character from early middle age back to being 15 years old. The weight of all of these physical and emotional demands falls on Stephen Hedger whose performance is impeccable.

There are two main narrative threads to the play. In the present, George is a manager of a failing football club who are in financial crisis. As the money men move in to make the tough decisions that might keep the club alive, George horse trades his way into a deal promoting the talented Darren Quinn from the junior squad to become the new striker. Quinn more than rises to the occasion professionally and personally. In the past, George is a teenager being hired by a man he mistakes for a flasher to become a professional footballer and moves through clubs with differing degrees of success. Initially, George’s biography seems something of an unnecessary digression, but as the story of the present reaches its climax at the end of the first half of the play, the relevance comes into sharp focus and justifies its inclusion.

The play was written over ten years ago but nothing on stage indicates anything other than the present. The script has dated in that period, even if the central themes remain relevant.   The ubiquitous social media is absent, there’s a brief reference to Gordon Brown and the characterisation of the new chairman and PR advisor are somewhat clichéd now. It might have been better for director Sam Freeman to signal clearly to the audience that the play is set in the early noughties and not leave them to infer that (or not) by absence or reference. This is all the more significant in relation to LGBT sports people, as in the West progress has been made, significant progress in the Olympics, rugby and cricket and some very limited progress in football, although not in the UK.

The script is peppered with offensive language and phrases, seemingly with comic intent, which an audience now may struggle to find much humour in. Mostly the monologue form works, and Freeman directs it skilfully to enable George to be both storyteller and character, for the script to move deftly between locations and time periods, and for characters to appear and disappear with great economy and fluidity. For some of the key emotional scenes though this in inevitably a disadvantage however hard Hedger works to play both moments for two characters at once.

Hedger inhabits the twenty parts with clear physical and vocal demarcations and conjures some characterisations so vividly that he almost seems to shapes shift before the audience. It is a play of two halves, perhaps intentionally so. The first focusses on the dilemmas of the failing football club and at times gets weighed down in the specifics of each member of the team and playing tactics. The second focusses on a personal crisis for George and this is the more successful part of the play. Hedger’s performance as George hits his nadir captures movingly the bewilderment of someone whose world is falling apart.

Gaffer provides a challenging marathon for any actor who takes it on. Hedger acquits himself admirably. A premier league performance of equal interest to football and theatre fans alike, which is a considerable achievement.

28th June 2014 | Written by Stephen M Hornby | Original Article