Atmosphere, not drama, is the subject of David Storey’s 1971 play that arrives on the West End to complete a three-play season of Royal Court classics. (Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” and Terry Johnson’s “Hysteria” preceded.) To this first-time viewer of it, the play seems a classic of a very particular sort. Set before, during and after a Rugby League match one notably chilly afternoon in the north of England, “The Changing Room” chronicles with almost surgical precision the dynamics of a team, in a play stripped bare of accepted notions of character, plot or any sense of climax.
James Macdonald’s production captures a fleeting glimpse of 22 lives that are more important for their sheer numerical heft than for any individual stories one could separate out. On Broadway in 1973, where the play was a Tony nominee and ran for 192 performances, John Lithgow took the supporting actor Tony for playing the bashed-up forward, Kendal. On this occasion — and with all due respect to the excellent Brendan Coyle, the current Kendal — it’s impossible to imagine singling anyone out. Indeed, so natural and seemingly spontaneous is this ensemble that it is a bit of a shock when they take their bows and we realize that they are actors, not players, after all.
“The Changing Room” has long been touted for its documentary-like verisimilitude, but its hyper-realism extends beyond what a camera might find were it to prowl a real changing room. Hildegard Bechtler’s set, lit with matching exactitude by Rick Fisher, is at once imposing and slightly shabby, and so, we learn, are the lives (not to mention the physiques) of the men who inhabit it. The first act is mostly eager anticipation, as the players arrive one by one to be greeted by dour clubroom cleaner Harry (Ewan Hooper), who speaks nostalgically of the old days even though he has never seen a match. Club chairman Thornton (David Hargreaves) wishes the team luck and is met with the hush of a roomful of mostly working-class men encountering a Sir. (Thornton has a knighthood.) The class system lives — off the pitch, at least.
The second and third acts play out the game without once taking us on the playing field, though the occasional offstage roar — and loud speaker report — chart the team’s progress. Kendal comes in with a broken nose, fearful that he won’t be able to re-enter a game that provides his only relief from drink, the coal mines and a philandering wife who sounds of far less value than his new electric tool kit. Wing player Patsy (Chris Gascoyne) nurses an injured shoulder, while team masseur Luke (Paul Rider) dresses wounds, straps torsos and keeps bodies more or less intact. The chat moves toward and away from personal matters — jobs, mothers, girlfriends — lest undue intimacy threaten a camaraderie observant of rules every bit as strict as those on the pitch.
While “The Changing Room” tackles a self-evidently male milieu, the abiding mood is sad, even elegiac, and exists at some remove from the expected macho horseplay; the banter, one always feels, is a front for lives even less happy than the men may realize. And unlike Arnold Wesker’s structurally comparable “The Kitchen” — which received its own outstanding Court revival two years ago — the discourse never suddenly erupts in violence, even though mud, bruises and blood figure heavily onstage.
A stooped Harry closes the play, like Firs in “The Cherry Orchard,” tidying a room once heaving with activity, though for how much longer is anyone’s guess. (“One more season, I think; I’m finished,” says player Cliff Owens.) It’s a measure of the power of both play and production that they communicate a sense of loss accompanied by change at once forbidding and inevitable. One leaves “The Changing Room” feeling wistful, though for what remains as potently mysterious as the play itself.