Gaffer! at the Southwark Playhouse is the story of George, a star footballer-turned-manager of Northbridge Town, a struggling League Two side whose fortunes look set to change with a takeover from an ex-record producer and a great run in the FA Cup. But change isn’t always for the best and when he is caught in a compromising situation with the new young team hero and the certainties of his world begin to crumble.
As a black comedy, in describing the trials of managing a football team from the lower divisions and the randomness that George has to deal with in its collection of peculiar characters around the ground and in the dressing room, it is extremely funny, as it is when replicating the bizarre touchline antics of football managers. And it is also good at depicting the clash between the thoroughly old-school George who is all about the football and the new chairman with his modernising ways and vision of the club as a money-making machine.
But it also tackles the thorny issue of the rampant homophobia in the world of football and this is where Deka Walmsley’s performance really is impressive in showing the turmoil of a man fighting the tsunami of intolerance from everyone in his world, the endless hounding from the press, all the while having to deal with his own repressed sexuality which he has not come to terms with.
Altogether, it came across as a potent piece of drama, incredibly gripping given that it was a one-man show, but all the more powerful for its even-handedness in its treatment of its subject matter. Chibnall’s writing steers clear of judgement on either side or reaching for the easy solutions with a subject that is agonisingly real, in that even in today’s society, there are no openly gay footballers in the Premiership and the tragic story of Justin Fashanu’s suicide after he was the first to come out is still painfully fresh.