Tackling discrimination: cast members of Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage. Photograph: Robert Workman

Following a tip off, I arrive to meet the playwright Robin Soans, holding a packet of Jaffa Cakes. In Soans’ new play Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, opening at the Arcola this month, the main character’s mother says she always knows her son’s mood based on his eating habits – when things got bad, she says, he stopped eating Jaffa Cakes: “He can usually eat them by the packet.”

The son in question is Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas, who in 2009 came out, bringing a lifetime of denial to an end and beginning the long journey towards acceptance among his fellow professionals.

Accepting a Jaffa Cake and dunking it into a cup of lemon tea, Soans tells me it is domestic detail like this that is so essential in a documentary play: “If you want people to believe the big stuff and go on the big journeys, you’ve got to woo them with the detail,” he says.

The play is about a pioneer. “It’s about someone who did something that had never been done before,” says Soans. During research for the play Thomas admitted that whilst it was a groundbreaking act, it also came with the knowledge that “you have to be prepared to take the shit for it”.

And Thomas did, being ritually insulted on rugby fields around the country in his late career. Six years on, it is his resilience and self-awareness through those dark times that have made him a hero to more than just sport fans, Soans says.

Thomas is very keen for his story to be told – hence persistent rumours of a forthcoming Mickey Rourke film portrayal – but when Soans initially approached him, he was sceptical.

“I think he distrusted the theatre as being exploitative and pretentious, but the first time he saw a run-through in the theatre he was gasping, he was sitting up, it was this absolute recognition.”

On stage Thomas’ personal story is interwoven with that of his hometown of Bridgend, which, around the same time, saw 25 teenage suicides in just two years.

“The two things I never, never try to be are either worthy or grim,” says Soans, “even if it’s a very serious subject.” Instead, with humour and humanity his express intention is, he says, to “reveal a piece of human nature that hasn’t been revealed in that way before.”

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL from 20 May – 20 June
arcolatheatre.com

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