Theatre The Changing Room Duke of York's, London

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The Independent Culture
Emerging from David Storey's The Changing Room when it was first presented in 1971, Noel Coward is said to have remarked that "15 acorns are hardly worth the price of admission". Someone should have reminded him that this is a play, not a marrow contest. But then the off-the-field rituals of a northern rugby league club can have been only a fraction higher up the list of the Master's interests than, say, the professional world of the trainee gynaecologist.

Seeing the play 25 years on, in James Macdonald's flawless ensemble production for the Royal Court Classics season, I was struck more than ever by how Storey's technique - a meticulously detailed naturalistic surface on which nothing much of particular moment seems to be happening - pushes to an extreme the method DH Lawrence pioneered some 60 years earlier in plays such as A Collier's Friday Night. With Rupert Murdoch threatening rugby league's traditions, The Changing Room seems, in 1996, at once a timeless study of male bonding rites and a preservation in art of a fast-vanishing culture.

Given the recent Royal Court productions of The Kitchen and Rat In the Skull, the only surprise is that they haven't turned the stalls of the Duke of York's into a vast communal bath. Hildegard Bechtler's bleak changing room, with its open entry to bath and showers, is kept, you will be relieved to hear, strictly behind the footlights, where, proscenium-framed, it acquires an austere beauty.

For the uniformly excellent actors, this play must be a rather curious gig - coming to the theatre, getting changed backstage so you can get changed again onstage and then do the whole thing in reverse. But it's hard to believe they don't do this for real every Saturday, as you watch them daub frozen bodies with liniments, don jockstraps, hide pre-match nerves behind formulaic hearty banter, bring bashed-up bodies for repair and then, in the aftermath of victory, camp it up butchly in the bath ("Barry! Barry! We can't do without you, Barry!").

Glancing references to corrupt council contracts or spouses with degrees suggest that this is a world where the old ways are beginning to change, while fleeting insinuations (that, say, the wife of the hospitalised player will now be free to roam) hint that the lives to which these men disperse aren't either so simple or fulfilling as the team existence they half resent, half depend on. What is sad is the way they are undervalued by everyone from the glum old cleaner who has never seen a match to the florid-faced, titled chairman, whose efforts to be encouraging merely confirm how little he knows these men.

It would be invidious to single out an actor. They play so well together that it made me fantasise that the Court would do The Changing Room in rep, with the same cast in a drag version of Clare Booth Luce's all-female The Women. As a startling reverse image, it could not be bettered. Last one into a dress is a sissy.

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