This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 17 March 2016.
The World Snooker Championships have been held at the Sheffield Crucible since 1977, so it was really only a matter of time before this role started bleeding over into its other life as a theatre. The snooker table is literally placed front and centre here, taking advantage of the Crucible’s circular layout in a way which simply wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. The Nap, the new farce from Richard Bean, writer of One Man, Two Guvnors, is a good deal more entertaining than your run-of-the-mill snooker game, although equally skilful and methodical in its production. Witty, inventive, and constantly surprising, The Nap defies expectations while still feeling traditional, and it’s wonderful to see a play with such high-profile talent behind it focus so relentlessly on Sheffield. This is not a play for the home counties, and while this may limit its audience compared to some of Bean’s other plays, anyone with even a passing knowledge of snooker or Sheffield is sure to get a kick out of it.
The plot revolves around promising young snooker player Dylan Spokes – “Sheffield’s very own, born down the Eccy Road” – hot off the success of becoming the 107th ranked snooker player in the world. We join him a few days before his first big match against star player Duncan Ferryman, arguing with his with his deadbeat father Bobby as he practices in Manor Top Social Club (the play begins when Bobby enters and proclaims “What a dump… It’s not the Crucible, is it?”). From there the play gradually mutates into an elaborate conspiracy thriller involving match fixing, a threatening gangster, and Dylan’s budding relationship with the policewoman assigned to his case. It’s increasingly surreal, fast-moving stuff, anchored by a strong set of performers and a distinct grounding in the rules of the sport. We are reminded throughout of the very real legal ramifications of match-fixing, and Dylan is insistent on doing things by the book, which only gets more complex as the play goes on. The main thing at stake is not so much Dylan’s safety as his integrity, and he refuses to cheat and “tank a frame”, even in the face of physical violence.
The script deserves praise for handling so many different elements so expertly, and for constantly wrong-footing the viewer. Every time I thought I had the play figured out, it wriggled back out of my grasp, either with a new twist to the narrative or through outright surrealism – a highlight is the dream sequence in the first half, detailing the invention of snooker. On top of that, the dialogue is absolutely masterful, peppered with great one-liners, and with a distinctly old-fashioned sense of playfulness – particular highlights include, “‘What’s your sexual preference?’ – ‘From behind.’”, “There’s no smoke without salmon!” and “I had an affair for ten years, but I managed to forgive myself.” The overall feeling is of an old-fashioned farce with a more modern structure, a synthesis which works beautifully.
The cast is a mixed bag, but generally solid. Jack O’Connell gives an earnest and vulnerable performance, and his wiry, deliberate stage presence helps cement the impression of him as an athlete. Mark Addy is hilarious as Bobby, his downtrodden charm and well-timed bravado reliably making the audience laugh, matched by fellow veteran comic actor Dermot Crowley. Louise Gold is suitably menacing as gangster Waxy Chuff, and adept at the puns, but her range is somewhat limited, and Ralf Little and Youssef Kerkour do reasonably well with stock supporting characters. But the weak link is sadly Rochenda Sandall as Dylan’s love interest, not coming into her own until the final scene (a clever little number where their dramatic re-union interrupts the Snooker World Championship Final, complete with commentary – “‘I love you Dylan, and I don’t care who’s watching’ – ‘An estimated eight million viewers’”).
The Nap is a bold, ambitious, and extremely funny play, and a feather in the cap of Sheffield’s theatre scene. After the huge success of his recent efforts, it would have been easy for Richard Bean to vanish into the West End. To see him remaining this grounded — and more importantly, this funny — is hugely gratifying. This is the sort of play we need more of.