Friday, March 1, 2024

James Willstrop, The Bard of Pontefract, gets his lines right on court …

… to help deliver a successful play about squash
By JAMES ROBERTS (Squash Mad Correspondent)

James Willstrop, the current Commonwealth Games singles gold medallist from the Gold Coast Games in 2018, will be stepping onto the squash courts at the University of Birmingham to defend his title in just 55 days time.

However, over the past two weekends, he graced three of the courts, combined into one to convert them into a special theatrical stage which was used to perform a play about squash called Outside The Box.

This play was created through a collaboration between Birmingham-based theatre company Untied Artists and the Play House, a Theatre Education Charity also based in Birmingham.

The play was part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, to highlight the best of arts, culture and sport across the West Midlands in the run-up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

There were four performances over the two weekends and we at Squash Mad went along to the morning performance on Saturday May 28.

Featuring a cast of professional actors, squash players and local school children, the play explored the evolution of squash, from its origins in Harrow School and the Fleet Prison in London, and in particular through the prism of the tumultuous partition of India.

James Willstrop takes centre stage

It also told the story of the struggles, journeys and triumphs of some of the sport’s most iconic players, in particular those of Jahangir Khan, arguably the sport’s greatest ever player, and his family.

The moving story of Maria Toorpakai Wazir also featured heavily, from having to disguise herself as a boy called Ghengis Khan to compete in weightlifting competitions and eventually squash, through to her eventual passage to Canada to train with the legendary Jonathan Power.

Through a mixture of music, dance and a fair dose of humour, the play was thoroughly entertaining and inspirational throughout. The professional actors, Mustafa Chaudhry, Sabrina Nabi and Ariya Larker were all superb and it is fair to say that James Willstrop more than matched their acting ability and professionalism.

A future treading the boards of the stage as opposed to the squash court surely beckons for James, despite Mustafa’s joke towards the end when asked how he was doing acting-wise by James – ‘I have taken notes’, he quipped!

The undisputed stars of the show, however, were the children. Over the course of the four performances, 82 9-10-year-olds took part from Ward End School, Regents Park Community School, Percy Shurmer Primary School, and Heath Mount Primary School.

The majority of the children taking part were from global majority backgrounds and had not previously been to the University of Birmingham and had never played squash before.

Drama on court at the University of Birmingham

A parent of a child at Ward End School commented: “The impact Outside the Box has had on my daughter has been significant. We did not know the stories of Jahangir Khan and Maria Toorpakai Wazir and to see that reflected in this piece, alongside the opportunity for my daughter to perform, has enabled her and me to look beyond the everyday and aspire to more.”

A nice touch at the end was each child coming back onto the stage to the audio of their own voice outlining their ambitions in life for 2042, before taking a well-deserved bow from an appreciative audience.

England Squash is hoping to continue a legacy in the schools involved by raising money to build outdoor squash courts in the school playground, like the one recently installed at King Solomon International Business School in Birmingham.

As a squash fan, I have to say that Outside The Box made me proud of the sport of squash and also further cemented my love for it. I was accompanied by my son, who plays a little squash but is not very aware of the sport’s origins and history and he came away inspired to learn more.

The Commonwealth Games squash competitions will feature both singles and doubles competitions and will be taking place on the squash courts at University of Birmingham Sports and Fitness, including an all-glass show court, from July 28 to August 8.

Pictures courtesy of Graeme Braidwood and James Roberts


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