Gypsy Queen, Mill at the Pier, Wigan, review: A worthy successor to gay footballer play Away Days

Hope Theatre Company's 'Gypsy Queen' by writer/actor Rob Ward about two professional boxers learning to love is a touching romance 

By Paul Vallely
Wednesday 03 May 2017 11:38
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Rob Ward in his play "Gypsy King' at Pier at the Mill in Wigan
Rob Ward in his play "Gypsy King' at Pier at the Mill in Wigan

The man everybody expected to become a champion boxer has lost his killer instinct. At the same time a bare-knuckle gypsy king streetfighter is brought into the gym by the boxer’s trainer father. The scene is set for a contest of physical strength and machismo. But what emerges from Gypsy Queen is a rather touching love story.

Perhaps we should have expected that. Hope Theatre Company has for the past decade been presenting work that promotes equality and celebrates diversity. A bigger clue was that the previous play, Away From Home, by this writer/actor Rob Ward was about a rent boy and a gay Premier League footballer.

When that play was toured four years ago this newspaper described it as “a singularly brave – and rather extraordinary – piece of theatre” with a bravura one-man performance from Ward. Gypsy Queen is a worthy successor in which Ward is complemented by some fine acting from Ryan Clayton. It is a strong little play.

The streetfighter is from a Traveller community of Liverpudlian Catholics. The boxer is from a family of champions. The play sets up a series of clashes between the men and the clans to which they belong.

There are just two actors who play eight quick-change characters which they sustain with remarkable precision. The cast shift snappily from caricature comedy – the camp Scouse clubber, the broken-backed assistant trainer, and a Mrs Brown-style Catholic mother – to the convincing mix of toughness and tenderness which characterises the two men who’ve been raised to fight and have to learn how to love.

The piece lasts just 70 minutes but it is very tightly written and finely engineers a number of neat oppositions: love and lust, family and friendship, religion and bigotry, identity and community.

Ward and Clayton move deftly between laugh-out-loud lines and moving moments in the fancy footwork between the man who knows he is gay and the one who hasn't confronted his sexuality. They also bring out the pitiful conflict of the subplot of a man who cannot sort out when he is being a trainer and when a father.

This exploration of sport, faith and sexuality is a celebration of a love that still dare not speak its name in sporting circles. But it is funny and unsentimental and not a little shocking with its rather dark twist at the end.

The play tours to Stafford, Dublin, Brighton, Glasgow, Lincoln, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Manchester.

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