Ray Gravell played more than 400 games for his Welsh club Llanelli, earned 23 caps for Wales and played for the British Lions in 1980.

He described himself as “just a minor cog, quite an ordinary player to be honest”. Fellow players, opponents and his loyal army of Welsh fans would noisily disagree. He made the ordinary, extraordinary – and embodied a tenacity, self-reflection and steadfast loyalty which raised the hopes and pride of a nation.

Owen Thomas’s clever and insightfully fashioned text, unerringly directed by Torch Theatre’s Peter Doran, explores a life which began in the mining village of Kidwelly and extended to filmmaking and the media. Gravell featured in films with Jeremy Irons and Peter O’Toole (himself a rugby fan). He was also revered and liked as a rugby commentator.

In the cramped confines of Holden Street Theatres’ Ruby’s venue (capacity 28), Bale’s Grav looms large but is also minutely observed. Much of the focus is on his father, from whom the brawny young man always wanted proud approval. Interestingly, Grav often lacked confidence and Bale captures his yeoman determination to please and reassure his coaches and fellow players.

He describes his life in discontinuous narratives. Childhood memories are time-shifted to descriptions of games. He relives his anxieties as key matches approach. Encounters such as the fixture between West Wales and the All Blacks in 1972. This famous, unexpected win is told like a battle from The Iliad. It is mock heroic but also, in Bale’s rich Welsh-inflected telling, genuinely heroic as well. We share his pride in his country, the Wales doing it hard during the Thatcher mining closures, rising up against centuries of condescension. Then the attention segues to the transformative grief when his father goes missing.

There are fleeting references to later health crises in Grav’s life. These jumps and asides leave us with dots to connect. Thomas’s script operates with such splendid emotional thrift that the impact is all the more compelling.

Grav is amusing, captivating and steers wide of the platitudes and complacencies of official sports biography. Gareth J Bale gives us a vivid portrait of a player who could stop stampeding All Blacks in their tracks, but also had exceptional gravitas as a person.

Grav is playing at Ruby’s, Holden Street Theatres, from February 13 to March 17.

Read more 2024 Adelaide Fringe coverage here on InReview.

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