Playing by the Rules


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 4th December, 2014


We have all seen them, those sports-themed movies.  They’re all the same.  Individuals fighting against the odds to win the climactic championship, proving their worth as a team player.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Here, duo Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse (working collectively as Action Hero) re-enact version of key scenes from this genre, exposing not  only the clichéd nature of the stories but also a shallowness to the culture and, at the heart of that culture, the engine that drives it all, perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.  Work hard and you will reach the top. Millions of Americans swallow and repeat this lie, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The two actors portray all the characters: the team members, the cheerleading squad, the tough-talking coach, the commentators and even the furry mascot.  This small-town high school team is the Wildcats; we have all been given pennants to wave – but the sport they play is never pinned down.  The story covers all all-American sports simultaneously and interchangeably.

The stroke of genius is the cast retaining their English accents.  The dispassionate, deadpan delivery gives the lie to the passionate pep talks and just how goddamn important everything is.  It leads to some hilarious moments.  The Coach comes across like an office manager in a staff briefing, for example.  There is the added bonus that we, as a British audience, are too reserved.  We can’t throw ourselves into the whooping and cheering to which our American cousins are prone at the drop of a sports reference.

The absurdity of regarding sport as anything other than entertainment is laid bare.  But the play hints at more than this.  As a culture, we are becoming increasingly Americanised.  And it doesn’t suit us.  It makes for a shallower society where the pressure to conform is almost irresistible.  The play shows us the American way is a poor fit for us Brits.  We should oppose this cultural imperialism (and, while I’m on this soapbox, shun such American things as privatised healthcare, for instance).

All that said, this is a hugely entertaining 80 minutes.  There’s even a training montage performed by a seemingly indefatigable James Stenhouse as “Tyler”, while cheerleader Connie begins to have doubts and questions, resisting the expectations imposed on her gender.  Of course, they end up playing the game, playing by the rules, and are ultimately victorious – before the high school dream machine spits them out into their unremarkable and mundane adult lives.

It’s energetically performed; the pace never lets up, and there is almost ceaseless loud music to get our hearts pumping.  Go, Wildcats!

The two are joined by Laura Dannequin as a referee in a black-and-white striped shirt.  She blows her whistle between scenes and makes arcane pronouncements in impenetrable sports lingo.  Inscrutable and implacable, the referee enforces the rules and imposes penalties with the arbitrary nature of fate and the unknowability of God.

Unusual, very funny and acerbic, Hoke’s Bluff is joyously subversive.  I waved my pennant enthusiastically – until my arm began to feel a bit tired.

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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