Review: First Touch. Nottingham Playhouse.

There have been a surprising amount of plays written about sports and sports players which really should be no surprise at all. Most games present dramas on or off field, on or off court, even in the rarefied and politically tense atmosphere of a world chess championship. Some plays are about amateur leagues such as Up and Under, some about gentle games which become vicious like in the cricket based play Ashes. Rarely are they about sexual abuse within the world of what some call the beautiful game – football.

At Nottingham Playhouse in Nathaniel Price’s new play – First Touch– we find ourselves back in the mid to late 1970s. The set by Charlotte Espiner is a wonderous blend of terraces meets pitch meets changing room meets the family home of Clayton (Raphael Akuwudike) and his family. It all melds into one, depicting scenes of happy and bad memories and the trials of growing up as a teenager with ambitions and the latent talent to be a professional footballer. Despite the tensions of a politically difficult time in the UK with Thatcher staring down at the proceedings, things ain’t so bad in Clayton’s mixed race family.

Clayton’s coach Lafferty (Arthur Wilson) seems an okay guy willing to guide Clayton to his footballing dreams through regular coaching sessions and some tough love. But then Clayton starts missing sessions claiming he is sick. His relationship with his girlfriend Serena (Clare Oxley) starts off well but then starts to crack and become oddly abusive. Patterson (Nicholas Bailey) is Clayton’s dad – and a man with a lot of love to offer but often short-tempered with his family, his hot temperament not helped by strike issues at the local steelworks. Clayton’s little brother Courtney (played on press night by Isaac McLeod) is a bundle of fun little boy obsessed with Bruce Lee, has a wise head on his young shoulders and is desperate to follow in Clayton’s football boots and train as a professional. Clayton tries to dissuade him in his choice of ever being a professional. Is there something dark hidden in the world of UK professional football that turns an ambitious lad like Clayton into a seething angry mass of sullen confusion?

Whatever it is I am sure Lafferty the coach will sort it out. After all surely he has Clayton’s football dreams at the centre of his tutelage – doesn’t he? What’s the big drama?

In First Touch, Nathaniel Price’s ‘big drama’ comes from the true life secret world of the abhorrent retrospective cases of sexual abuse conducted by former coaches and scouts in the football world, affecting young players and spanning decades. Nottingham Playhouse’ Adam Penford commissioned this play for a previous season which got delayed by Covid. It’s on until 21st May and even if you have no interest in football the human stories of a family affected by the scandal, directed with creative style by Jeff James will keep you engaged, entertained and ultimately moved throughout.

Not only is this a brand new play but Nottingham Playhouse have given Raphael Akuwudike, Chloe Oxley, Issac McLeod and Taiden Fairall (Courtney on some perfs) their first professional theatre debuts. Along with Neal Craig (Uncle Kevin), Claire Goose (Freya) and the rest of the aforementioned cast the whole company give us an authentic and energetic slice of 1970s life on stage. You’ll come away feeling very touched by this heartfelt, thrilling production of First Touch which scores goal after goal on all theatrical fronts.

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