Sherman Theatre, Cardiff
Thurs 22 Feb – Fri 23 Feb
Torch Theatre Company’s one-man show exploring the life of Welsh rugby icon Ray Gravell returns to Sherman Theatre before it heads to New York and Off-Broadway in March. “It’s one of those things you don’t quite believe until it actually happens,” says actor Gareth John Bale, who plays the title role.
The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduate is visibly excited about the play’s foray into American territory. For a small production about a Welsh rugby player to land a gig “smack-bang in the middle of Manhattan” may seem unlikely, but the Welsh community in New York is surprisingly enterprising – to the extent that a Welsh-run restaurant in Brooklyn pulled strings to bring Torch Theatre’s production to a venue near them.
For the play’s New York outing, Bale expects a strong turnout from the local Welsh population. But how will Americans take to such a quintessentially Welsh production? “Americans won’t necessarily understand the rugby, but that doesn’t really matter,” explains Bale. “The drama in Grav’s life is what carries the story.”
Ray Gravell had a troubled relationship with his father, and later in life he famously lost half of his leg to diabetes. He died aged 56 in 2007 of complications contracted from his diabetes. “I think Grav would laugh and find it incredible that we are doing a play about him ten years after he died,” Bale reflects.
The play, which first toured in 2015, is written by Owen Thomas and directed by Peter Doran. With Gareth Bale single-handledly acting out the 80-minute play against the backdrop of a decaying sports changing room, Bale’s performance and Owen’s carefully-balanced script are pushed to the fore.
Between the anecdotes and the rugby trivia, the play offers a poignant look into the private life of a lad from West Wales who enjoyed huge success professionally, but also had great difficulties to overcome.
After Grav’s first run, which included a gig at the Edinburgh Fringe, it scooped an Audience Award at the 2016 Welsh Theatre Awards. The play’s ability to draw audiences speaks volumes of Gravell’s legacy. “People have such affection for him, and they remember the man more than they remember the rugby player,” says Bale.
In later life Gravell enjoyed a career as a broadcaster and actor. In 2004 Gareth Bale worked with Gravell on a programme for S4C, and he admits meeting the man has been tremendously helpful in his efforts to emulate the legend on stage. “He had an incredible warmth, and that rare talent of making you feel special. It was never about him, it was always about you,” he says.
Bale is not alone in holding a cherished memory of the late Gravell. His legacy has had an astonishing ability to mobilise people –the Ray Gravell Trust, which was set up after his death in 2007, has raised a staggering £1 million to date for charity.
Gravell will always be known first and foremost for his achievements in that most Welsh of pursuits, rugby. The sport holds a position in Welsh culture that is incomparable to other countries in Europe. Bale explains the phenomenon by linking it to the historical mining communities in small Welsh towns. “Rugby players would also have been coalminers, all working together down the pit in a very tough environment, Monday to Friday.” Sunday would see the miners attending service in chapel, but Saturday was for rugby, which offered a very physical release for the miners, on and off the pitch.
The enduring love of rugby also comes down to its ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality, which was inherent in the mining communities. “The players might have been super stars, but they weren’t treated as such. Down the pit everybody was equal,” Bale explains.
In his lifetime Ray Gravell crossed many peoples’ paths, and Bale is made acutely aware of this when he performs in theatres throughout Wales. “Inevitably, someone who actually knew Grav will come and say hello after the show, so that puts the pressure on me, as an actor, to keep my eye on the ball – pardon the pun,” he laughs.
Now is your chance to catch Grav before it goes Stateside. After its Cardiff opening the play hits Gravell’s old stomping ground Llanelli on 5th March, and there are two additional performances at Torch Theatre’s home in Milford Haven on March 8 and 9.
Admission: £15. Info: 029 2064 6900 / www.shermantheatre.co.uk
words LISBETH BURICH