Mark Starling’s Target Man takes a premise that should be historical — male Premier League footballers coming out as gay — and invites us to share in the shock that it’s still only imagined. William Robinson plays Connor, an up-and-coming goalkeeper playing understudy to the team’s undisputed number one, Joel Nelson (Mateo Oxley).
Over stretches and training drills, the two share a not-quite friendship as they quickly learn of each other’s hidden homosexuality. Connor is intensely nervous, with Robinson relying on his strength as a physical actor to compensate for an ineloquent script. He riles and rages throughout, but some of the polish heaped upon Oxley’s character would benefit Connor’s growth throughout the piece, without compromising the early power dynamic built on disparities in age and experience.
The football clichés are attentively written, creating a convincing divide between the world of interviews and photoshoots and the fragile masculinity of the dressing room. The latter proves crippling for the goalkeeping pair, with Wolstenholme’s support in several roles creating hard edges all around an increasingly delicate scenario. Oxley shines throughout, softening as his character’s vulnerabilities move from internal to external.
Sian Martin is strong as opportunistic agent Emma Harris, but her role is overwritten. There is too much needless detail throughout: sections on foreign transfers, Connor’s father and Emma’s own desires are there to create a convincing tapestry, but the central dynamic suffers for this breadth. There are more inconsistencies: after Connor outs Joel to Emma, their remaining collaboration feels unlikely given the high stakes. It would have been nice to see other teammates represented too, as a potential way to explore homophobia’s ugly faces.
The premise in Target Man is strong, but the script lets down a cast of well-acted characters. Stripping back several scenes and stepping away from the murky world of sporting business would give this important exploration more space to go deeper into the causes and effects of prejudice.