If playing rugby isn’t masochistic enough …

Muddy Cows is the latest of John Godber’s sports plays. It’s well-written and well-directed, but its mainly for the sports play niche.

The team in the dressing room from hell

I was almost tempted to dismiss this play out of hand. What a far-fetched idea! Seven people actually choose to play rugby? I personally cannot think of anything I’d less rather do ever since this was inflicted on me in PE, but to some people this sport is their passion. But, evidently, getting flattened on a muddy field each week isn’t enough punishment for some. If you’re a true masochist, you captain the team, and add all the stress of running the team. That is the life of Maggie Deakin (Liz Carling), captain of the women’s second fifteen at the local Rugby Union club.

Although the term “second fifteen” is a generous description, because usually you can’t get fifteen together for the match. And you get absolutely no support from the club and have to do everything off your own back. Who in their right mind would take this on? And then you’ve got all the other problems: half your players work shifts at funny hours and can’t turn up to the practice; for the other half, complicated lives, complicated marriages, relationships, job developments and unplanned pregnancies get in the way; you can never raise enough money and end up funding it out of your own pocket; they treat it like a social club; transporting people anywhere is a nightmare; everyone expects you to do all the work; no-one appreciates the effort you put in; they have a laugh when they ought to make an effort; they never learn their lines; they miss their cues; get their own idea about-

I beg your pardon, I’ve got mixed up. I thought I was writing about what it’s like directing a one-act play. Right, where were we? Rugby.

Anyway, all this becomes too much for Maggie, who is all ready to announce she’s packing it in, when calm vice-captain Jess (Abi Titmuss) comes to the rescue and helpfully says that what Maggie’s trying to say is that it would be a good idea to enter a Rugby Sevens tournament. And so in Act Two, they enter a changing room full of dirt, rusting locker, blood, and one of the bins used, not for putting rubbish in, but as a marker for the corner of the room where you throw the rubbish. And if they reach the final, they’re up against the “invitation team” consisting of New Zealand internationals and Samoans. And it’s pissing it down. Oh boy.

There is one big weakness with sports plays and sports films, which is that they rarely leave room to keep the audience guessing. They almost always enter a tournament where the stakes are high. Will they win the match and everything works out, or will they lose? What do you think? John Godber does a lot of sports plays, and he does manage to take this play in a different direction to the others. It’s been said that since John Godber left Hull Truck, his writing has got angry, and that certainly figure here, because a lot of this is a protest about how little sport women get in what society deems a men’s sport. He does, however, make it difficult to give this story a beginning, a middle, and an end. So although this play provides an interesting insight into the world of women’s rugby, the price of this format is that the story meanders along and finishes on a not terribly uplifting note.

One digression I will make here is a comment on Abi Titmuss. When I first talked about this play, I made a flippant remark about have an ex-glamour model in the cast. On reflection, that was harsh of me. I am in general highly cynical of pointless Z-list celebrities (especially ones who got famous by jiggling their tits around in lads’ mags) who think their pointless fame qualifies them for everything – Jordan is the obvious culprit in mind. I’ve been suspicious of Abi Titmuss’s role in another Godber play, Up and Under, which most Abi Titmuss fans from her lads’ mag days will probably remember as the film when you see Samantha Janus naked in the shower. (There was a lot more to the role than that bit, and I don’t think that happens in the stage version at all, but the typical lads’ mag reader isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate the difference.) Even though I could see Abi Titmuss suiting that role, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to carry on associating yourself with that sort of thing if you want to be taken seriously.

However, having seen this play, I am now satisfied that she is serious about leaving her old career behind and establishing herself as an actress in her own right. It’s difficult to judge how successful she will be from this, because the part of Jess is a reasonably easy role in an ensemble cast with few chances to shine as an individual. But she is doing the right thing by taking on these short of roles, with nothing sexualised about it and no hints that she might get her kit off. It may harsh to be marking her career this way, but this is what a lot of people are going to be doing, so the sooner she can distance herself, the better.

Anyway, Muddy Cows is well acted, well produced and well written, but this is mainly a play for Godber’s sports niche. If you like his other sports plays, you’ll like this one. If it doesn’t appeal to you, this one won’t either. But it is certainly an interesting development in the Hull Truck saga. This is now his second play he’s produced for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, so the chance of a return to Hull now looks slim. And with his recent plays being angry, it’s worth keeping an eye on what happens next.

There is another Godber play on tour at the moment, about to start at the Edinburgh Fringe, called Losing the Plot. This is under the banner of the John Godber Company, the semi-autonomous group he formed after his split from Hull Truck. I saw this at Richmond Georgian Theatre a few months back, and it’s a husband and wife two hander. The husband leaves, disappears for a few months expecting to be discovered as an artist, only to return a few months later unable to remember why he’d left.

This was a very promising idea of exploring the phenomenon of men in their fifties does this sort of thing for an apparent reason, and had the potential to explore why they do this sort of thing. Sadly, I was none the wiser after two hours. Instead, the story moves on to the wife who spent the time the husband was a way writing an unflattering book about him, which goes on to get published. It’s still a story, but it did seem a rather contrived one, and seemed to overwhelm the theme I was expecting of explaining a mid-life crisis.

To be fair, the play went down a lot better amongst the predominantly middle-aged audience, so maybe they identify this this sort of self destructive behaviour in a way us young whipper-snappers don’t. So I suppose this will form a suitable counter-balance at the Edinburgh Fringe to the six zillion angry student productions. But as someone who’s seen lots of Godber plays, I struggled to identify what made this play different from all the others. But the one thing he has said a lot about in the last few years in how the credit crunch has changed society. It’s still worth keeping an eye out for that, because what I’ve seen of that has potential.