an uncomfortable story of sexual abuse in football

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It’s a scandal that has tainted many of the biggest football clubs in the land: the sexual abuse of hundreds of elite young players at the hands of their trainers between 1970 and 2005. First Touch is an ambitious attempt to tell this story on stage by Nathaniel Price, a former Crystal Palace Youth Academy player himself, who is best known for his work on the BBC drama Noughts+Crosses. 

Our 17-year-old protagonist is one Clayton James (Raphael Akuwudike). It is 1979 and the turbulent decade to come looms large both in terms of the action – Clayton’s first-generation Caribbean father, Patterson (Nicholas Bailey), is debating whether to join his fellow steel workers in industrial action – and in a giant portrait of a smiling Margaret Thatcher that hangs at the back of the stage.

Clayton seems to have it all, including a beautiful girlfriend, Serena (Chloe Oxley), and the promise of a contract with a first division team. But he is haunted by Coach Laffertey (Arthur Wilson), a trainer who has abused him in the past and who has now returned to his club after a spell away. The narrative interweaves this main plot with the story of Coach Lafferty’s grooming and ultimate abuse of a 12-year-old Clayton. 

Wilson is excellent here, speaking lines of creeping double entendre (“Not many can see what I can: a diamond in the rough”) with a subtle intensity and an impenetrable confidence.

Charlotte Espiner’s set design is big and ambitious: a set of wide, grass steps that double up as both football pitch and living room, surrounded by geometric, avocado wallpaper that feels cloyingly 1970s. But it sometimes feels like director Jeff James is overwhelmed by the potential of the space. Instead of giving the main storyline the space it really needs to entrance and horrify the audience, he regularly fills the play with incongruous skits (choreographed by Kane Husbands), which see the cast run across the stage to enact a football match, a training session, or the experience of being in the stands.

Cast members move up and down the levels of the stage perhaps a little too regularly, while the decision to keep actors on the stage even when their characters are not in a scene is sometimes effective – for example, to reflect how memories of Laffertey haunt Clayton as he attempts to make love to his girlfriend – but at other times distracting. 

Akuwudike is a handsome and athletic lead, and his ability to shift tone captures that instinctive human capacity to bury horrendous trauma when the social circumstances require it. He has the makings of a star. Nevertheless, this is his first professional role since graduating from drama school and it feels like there is rather too much action and drama resting on his slight shoulders. His presence does not quite command all that is happening around him, despite it being a play that is in many ways a psychological study of its lead. 

First Touch’s best quality is the nostalgic atmosphere of unease that it evokes. Casual racism and homophobia litter the script, as do frequent attempts from the family to brush all their problems under the carpet. Bright disco hits from the likes of Chic and the Jackson 5 contrast the popular perception of the era with Clayton’s own traumatic experiences.

It is a powerful, jarring dichotomy.

Until May 21.

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