This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide
written and performed by Gary Lagden
Music composed and performed by Gareth Moulton
Directed by Geoff Bullen
Upstairs at the Western, 25 October 2018
Don’t let the simplicity and minimalism of the staging detract from the power and colour of Gary Lagden’s Fly Half, his paean to rugby’s beauty and brutality. This is an absorbing almost-hour-long performance, with a capacity audience held captive by Lagden’s South Wales lilt.
Lagden is both writer and performer and he tells the story of Darren, who, like many in his South Welsh community, combine their day job in the steel industry with living and breathing rugby. Darren watches the game with friends, is a player for a time and glows with pride as his son seems destined for a great playing career in the prestigious No 10 shirt of the fly half—in his view, the only position which requires a player to think on the rugby pitch.
Fly Half deftly charts rugby’s metamorphosis from the old-style punch of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (“my hard bits into your soft bits”), to the professionalism and perfect physiques of the modern game.
It is beautifully written—an extended poem, a free verse epic utilising the alliterative tricks and phrasing of Dylan Thomas to provide a rich, aural experience: “him, battered and bruised and beaming”, and “this lifeblood of our land, the crack and thwack of metal and furnace”. Darren’s thuggish adversary Barry, now weak and ill, was not going gently and Darren’s closing rage against the death of the game he loves creates new interpretations of Thomas’s potent poem on loss.
Arriving in his ill-fitting, “best” suit, apparently for a funeral, he is accompanied by on-stage musician Gareth Moulton’s ghostly guitar. There is an eerie quality to this performance, this time evoking Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Again, the skill of the writing is such that all is not explained; we learn of Darren’s life with his wife Sian, his passion for rugby and pride in his son yet not all ends are tied.
Moulton’s musical interludes provide breaks in play, his acoustic songs more a garnish to the narrative rather than driving it forward and providing room for the character, and audience, to pause and reflect.
Humour and pathos are ever-present and, whether you are a rugby fan or not, the excitement of playing and supporting your team, the thrill and anticipation of gathering for match day are vividly drawn.
The play toured rugby clubs in Wales in 2017 and has now begun a tour of venues and rugby clubs over autumn and winter—the content and minimal staging make this a perfect fit for a pre-match warm up event at any rugby club in the country.
Director Geoff Bullen keeps things simple, and wisely lets Lagden’s words and skilful delivery speak for themselves. Fly Half is both love song and lament; loss of the free flowing, fast-punching game to a more health and safety conscious, corporate approach, of the dying of industry in a community, and love and loss for family and friends.
A fitting and moving tribute to rugby’s pre-professional game.
Image by Keith Turner