The Changing Room

by David Storey

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Changing Room by David Storey is a gritty realist drama, written and first performed in 1971. It is set in a rugby league locker room. Storey integrated much of his life growing up into his plays. As a teen, he worked for a tent contractor, learning how to construct and deconstruct tents for events. He later wrote The Contractor, in which a tent for a wedding is erected and then dismantled on stage. In college, Storey supported his way through a fine arts school by playing rugby. He was the halfback of the Leeds RFLC professional league club. Storey later wrote several books and plays set in the rugby milieu.

The Changing Room is told in three acts. The first act takes place as the rugby team arrives and prepares for a game, the second act is set during the game break, and the third act is after the game. There is a large cast of characters, including all of the men who are involved with the team, from the team owner to the man who cleans the locker room. Storey breathes life into this setting and these men with intensely observed naturalism, never stepping back and commenting on behavior, yet understanding keenly the distinctions and rituals of the game, the team, and especially the class structures and hierarchy of British society.

The first and last person seen in the play is Harry. Harry is the cleaner for the team. He takes care of the locker room, lays out various clothing and equipment items for the players before the game, and picks up dirty and discarded items after the game. He does the laundry and mops up the showers; his working role for the team is the least glamorous of all. For most of the play, Harry is a background character, either ignored or ordered about by the others, and when the entire team is gathered, he has almost nothing to say. But, on his own, Harry’s personality shines through.

The play is set in 1971, at the height of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States. Harry is intensely paranoid about a Russian invasion. At the play’s start, while he is preparing the locker room and chatting with a player, Patsy, who habitually arrives early to dress for the game, Harry confides,

Harry: Read a book...they had a special machine...blew these winds o’er, you see...specially freezing...mixed it with a chemical...frozen ought... Froze the entire country... Then Ireland... Then crossed over to America and froze it out... Then, when everything wa’ frozen, they came o’er in special boots and took over... Here...America... Nobody twigged it. Nobody cottoned on, you see.

Harry goes on and on about this secret invasion to anyone who will listen, but most of the players laugh at him and don’t take him seriously. Harry grumbles and goes about his work. He later tells the team owner, Sir Frederick Thornton, during the second act, as he and Thornton wait for the players to come in for half-time, that he has never watched a modern rugby game, not even one played by this team. For him, rugby in the past was a better game, and as for modern players, “not one of them could hold a candle to the past"; “if they ever played a real team today they wouldn’t last fifteen seconds.” Thornton pays no attention to him. At the end of the play, after the game, Harry sings religious hymns as he mops out the shower, and he is the last man onstage, sweeping.

Storey’s voice as a writer spoke for...

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the working class in Britain, and his work reflects how, at the same time in British theater, there was a new generation of working-class British writers, actors, and directors, represented by young artists such as Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Brian Cox, Tom Stoppard, and Lindsay Anderson, who directed almost all of David Storey’s plays. Storey’s work is often compared to Anton Chekhov’s—like Chekhov, Storey is a detailed and realistic painter of scene, atmosphere, and people. The routine of the locker room is hypnotic to watch, and if audiences pay attention, small details suggest a lot about human behavior.

For instance, Walsh, a forward on the team, is a loud-mouthed joker. He makes crude sexual jokes and keeps most of the men laughing, though he is not a favorite with everyone, especially the players who either do not find him funny or are perhaps more taciturn by nature. These types of dramatic contrasts bring the characters into focus. In the third act, Walsh is heard from off-stage in the shower, making endless lewd comments about how he is “waiting for Barry,” one of the other team members, to come in and join him in the shower. No one seems willing to stop him until the owner, Thornton, appears.

Thornton (going to the bath entrance): And who’s thy waiting for, then, Walshy?

Pause.

Walsh (off): Oh, good evening, Sir Frederick…

Thornton: I’ll give you Sir bloody Frederick… I’ll be inside that bath in a bloody minute.

Walsh (off): Any time, Sir Frederick, any time is good enough for me.

The players laugh.

Walsh is a bit impudent at the end of this exchange, but he is clearly pulling back, as the team’s owner, an aristocrat, is none too happy with Walsh’s behavior. There are dozens of moments in the play when the players grovel to Thornton, for he is their meal ticket, their boss, and a member of the British upper class.

Storey is not quite done with Walsh, though. When Walsh finally appears in the locker room, the following occurs:

Walsh, with great circumspection, the towel still around him, has started to put on his clothes: vest and shirt.

The sense is that, for all of his blather and cheek, Walsh is actually quite shy and has delayed coming in from the shower with his jokes because he does not want to be naked or dress in front of the other men. Pretty much every player strips naked in the locker room in the first and third acts of the play. Storey doesn’t make a big deal of this; it is what happens here. But inside of what happens, he imbues subtle moments with added depth.

The team wins this game. Rugby is a rough sport, and several of the players are injured during play. One of the players, Kendal, is brought in just before half-time with a broken nose. The team’s hard-working medic and masseuse, Luke, takes care of him. The team’s trainer, Crosby, looks on, ready to move on.

Luke wipes away the blood with cotton wool, examines the damage. Sandford pours a drop of disinfectant from the bottle into the bowl of water. Luke dips in the cotton wool, wipes Kendal’s nose.

Crosby, not really interested, having wiped the blood from his hands and his track-suit, looks on impatiently over Luke’s back.
Kendal: A bit o’ plaster: I’ll go back on.

Luke: Nay, lad. The game’s over for you today.

Kendal: I’ll be all right…l’ll get back on…

Crosby: He’s off, then, is he?

Luke: Aye…

Crosby pulls Kendal from the game and assigns his position to one of the younger reserve players, Spencer, who has been ready for this chance. Kendal is taken off to hospital. Other players are mostly sanguine about Kendal’s injury—that’s the way it goes in rugby, and it seems that many of the players don’t like the overly fastidious Kendal anyway. They comment he might be “too bloody old" and should retire.

Storey sugarcoats nothing in The Changing Room, and while today there are many who may not relate to his strong portrayal of this macho culture, the play still exerts power, thanks to the writer’s ability to show every detail of these men’s behavior—the good, bad, and ugly, as well as what they share and what they hold back from one another—and how the game of rugby binds them together on the field and in the locker room.

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