Sophie Adnitt reviews Target Man by Mark Starling now playing at the King's Head Theatre, London.
King’s Head Theatre
From first hearing about it, Target Man, now playing at The King’s Head Theatre, has reminded me a lot of the recent ‘Gay Footballer’ Twitter story. The social account, created in July of this year, claimed to be run by a championship footballer who intended to come out as gay on a set date. Speculation was rife. However, on the eve of the supposed announcement, the account was deleted, after one final message was posted; ‘I thought I was stronger. I was wrong.’
Whether genuine or not, the ‘Gay Footballer’ bought the topic of LGBT players back into the mainstream, and in a rare case of life imitating art (this play was created in 2017, well pre-dating the account) Target Man deals with very similar issues. Even in this day and age, is it safe for a high profile sportsman to come out as gay? Despite all claims to the contrary from fans, coaches, team mates and sponsors, would it really damage a career?
In this case, Connor (William Robinson) is a new recruit to the team and a little bit in awe of training alongside his hero Joel (Mateo Oxley) and living under immense pressure from his ex-footballer dad (Edward Wolstenholme). His opportunistic agent Emma (Sian Martin) wants Connor to speak openly in the press about his sexuality – and not just him. This unpredictable and often affecting play asks questions about the state of the game and responds with answers we may not want to hear.
After a slightly stilted start, the play develops well, although ultimately it seems unsure of where to end. The King’s Head is a tiny space and occasionally it feels as if the cast have been directed to play this piece for a bigger venue. One of the joys of an intimate auditorium is getting to see the small details that would otherwise be lost in a larger house – a nervous shake of the hands, a worried glance, and it would refine the piece so much to allow the cast to play it as such.
In an astonishing professional debut, Robinson often captures some of these small, intimate details, which make his performance all the more powerful. Alongside him, Oxley creates an excellent portrayal of Joel. Initially stoic and wary, walls built high around him, Oxley gradually lets more and more of Joel’s insecurities come to the surface, charting a gradual, but depressingly unstoppable decline in his professional life – something Joel clearly cares deeply about.
Martin as agent Emma is wonderfully insidious – her mouth is saying one thing, but you get the idea that there’s a million other things being said in Emma’s head, not all of them nice. Rounding off this compact cast, Wolstenholme gets to grip with a range of accents in his multiple roles, populating the play with convincing characters within seconds of stage time.
The play is short, but very well contained; it never feels as if we’re missing out on not meeting anyone else, or seeing scenes outside the handful of locations presented. The best scenes are the ones allowed to run on a little longer, as the conversations become all the more absorbing. However a few too many are cut short with blackouts that make the narrative feel a little disjointed, and there are a few time skips of, assumedly, several months within the stoey that can feel a little disorientating. Otherwise, Mark Starling’s writing is gripping, especially when you realise that very few people in this play speak frankly to each other – and what they’re not saying is fascinating. There’s very little optimism in play here, but the overall mediocre bleakness of Joel and Connor’s fates comes across as all the more affecting. This isn’t some dramatic conclusion designed to thrill. This is the more likely to happen – and that in its way is all the more frightening.
A brutally honest piece of theatre, Target Man doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable, unsatisfying and often ugly side of a sport that has become more of a business than any other – including its commodification of private lives.
Until 24 August 2019