With a tagline “Can two men raised to fight, ever learn to love?”, you would be forgiven for thinking that Gypsy Queen, by writer and performer Rob Ward, is a nitty gritty drama about the double whammy of sexuality and homophobia in the macho world of boxing.
However, you’d be wrong. For though these issues raise their ugly heads, given the volley of one-liners, comical characterisations and extreme brevity of some of the back-to-back scenes, emotion and depth are in short in supply and the play is more akin to a sitcom than a stage play. Albeit a wickedly funny one.
Which is no bad thing, for the performers fit their roles like a glove, the writing is as sharp as an upper cut and Adam Zane’s fine direction makes the most of the boxing ring-sized stage of the Assembly’s Front Room (aka a couple of portakabins on George Street).
In the bloodshot red corner, Gorgeous George (Rob Ward): a wiry pikey with a cheeky smile who hides his sexual feelings towards other men behind a high guard and an alpha male nom de plume The Gypsy King.
In the blue corner, Dane “The Pain” Samson (Ryan Clayton): a chiselled Adonis with olive skin and an equally unblemished record who by day delivers knockout blows in the ring, but by night trades blows and rings of a different nature with his camp fuck buddy Josh “The Bottom” Benson.
Dane is out, but not “out out”: as long as he doesn’t say or do anything remotely gay, his father Vic operates a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. George on the other hand is in, as in “in in”: his working class roots and strict religious upbringing act like a ball and chain around his feet which anchor him in Straightville.
But when they meet… Pow! Dane likes what he sees. Biff! The feeling is mutual. Bam! Despite a lifetime of denial and a shroud of secrecy, they answer the tagline “Can two men raised to fight, ever learn to love?” with an orgasmic “Yes, yes, yes!” which would give Meg Ryan a run for her money.
Following on from his award-winning Away From Home, a one-man show about the fraught relationship between a rent boy and a closeted Premiership footballer which played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, Rob Ward’s Gypsy Queen is equally funny and engaging, sexy and assured, and continues to poke and prod at the uneasy relationship between sport, particularly male sport, and sexuality.
In addition to their main roles, both performers excel in a multitude of comic bit-parts including Clayton as a twinkly-eyed Irish mother and Ward as a stooping trainer which break the tension (perhaps too often) and provoke hoots of laughter (perhaps too much) when the going get tough for Gorgeous George and Dane “The Pain” Samson.
But behind the double entendres and sweaty torsos lies an important point. We had an openly gay boxing champion in the shape of Orlando Cruz. But so long as homophobia continues in and out of the ring (think Floyd Mayweather’s recent “you faggot, you ho” slur towards Conor McGregor), then plays like this by the appropriately named Hope Theatre Company are not only necessary but vital!