“Actors don’t often get roles like this. It’s very special.”

“Don’t be getting my double chin from that angle,” admonishes one of the Batley Girls as I gatecrash a photo line-up.

There’s a real buzz tonight at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) tonight for the premiere of The Ruck, the much-anticipated story of the Batley Bulldogs Under 16s Girls Rugby tour of Australia.

In the theatre bar with a pint in his hand and a grin on his face team coach Craig Taylor is in no doubt about the potential for this Creative Scene-commissioned collaboration between art and sport.

“It’s great for the girls,” he shouts above the racket his former players are now making on the next table, “but more importantly, it’ll be great for the sport. Hopefully it will inspire other girls to take up rugby.”

The front of house staff do their best to get everyone seated for kick off and, from where I sit in the circle, I can see Craig and the girls getting comfortable in the third row of the stalls, waving at others around the auditorium.

Within minutes of the lights fading, we’re in fits of laughter. And the tissues come out as the characters reveal themselves and the story develops of the team’s preparations for the first ever Australian tour by a girls’ rugby team.

It is, of course, a play of two halves and as the bar staff tackle the interval assault, I ask parents for a reaction. “It’s really good, isn’t it? Really good,” says Casey’s mum as she’s handed a drink, “they’ve got the way Craig would speak to the girls off to a T. We’re really enjoying it.”

With only four actors playing the whole team, writer Kevin Fegan has skilfully combined real and imagined storylines inspired, in part at least, by his time sitting with the girls on the back of the team coach.

One of the girls tells me she recognises the troubled character from the first half who self harms. “To see that played out on stage, I was in absolute tears,” she says, “because I realise now how far I’ve come from that time in my life. It’s brilliant.”

With everyone back in their seats, we’re transported to the Gold Coast for the second half and the whole of the Lawrence Batley Theatre is again in uproar as the team’s challenges on and off the field are played out. The Batley Girls even join in with the chants they’ve made their own.

Later LBT’s Rose Condo introduces a post-show discussion and, to accompanying whoops and hollers, gives a shout out to the Batley Girls as Kevin and Craig clamber belatedly on stage.

“Remember, whatever happened in Oz, stays in Oz,” jokes Kevin, “apart from this play of course.”

Actor Sophie Mercer who plays the young Asian newcomer, speaks on behalf of her collagues: “Actors don’t get roles like this very often. Mostly we play fictional characters so it’s very special when we do something based on true life.

“To be given a story like this where you girls have done something, made footprints that are bigger than your own, it’s been a real privilege.

“And after we came to meet you at the ground and seeing your team bond, then that helped us bond as actors. That was you guys… you are really inspirational.”

More tissues.

Rose takes questions from the audience. “I’m Batley born and bred,” says one woman, “and my father was involved with Batley Rugby Club until the day he died. “He would have been proud to have seen this tonight.

“I go to lots of Creative Scene events,” she continues, “and I think they are fantastic at what they do, bringing everyone from the community along with them. It’s been an unbelievable night.”

An unbelievable night indeed.

“I’ve never been to a theatre before,” says one of the Batley Girls to one of the mums, as they head through the foyer. “I wasn’t expecting it to be half as good as this.”

“Me neither.”

“It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves”

“The idea is we start off as fans and then we change into our kit,” says Joyce. “Is there time for you to take your tops off?”

I’m in the attic space at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, snapping away during this morning’s rehearsals for The Ruck which premieres on Friday.

Written by Kevin Fegan and commissioned by Creative Scene, it’s a play about the Batley Bulldogs Girls’ Under 16s team tour to Australia, the first ever tour by a girls’ rugby league team.

I’ve been following the evolution of this play on this blog since the girls and their families flew out from Manchester Airport in November 2015. I can’t wait to see how their adventures translate onto this stage this Friday.

Director Joyce Branagh and the eight-strong cast are having a good laugh trying to work out a passing sequence where the Batley Girls triumph down under for the first time.

“What if I run round this way?” asks one of the girls.

“Great,” says Joyce. “And now let’s try all that again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”

This whole time the assistant director is recording new stage directions and cues on her copy of the script. Creative Scene stalwart Rebecca Foster – who runs the West Yorkshire Drama Academy – has been invited to work with, and learn from, Joyce.

“Her direction is so imaginative and creative,” Rebecca tells me at the tea break. “As a young director I wouldn’t know where to begin in staging rugby match sequences with just four actors, but Joyce does this fantastic job of making it exciting and fun to watch.

“As you’ve seen she creates an environment where all the cast contribute their own ideas. It becomes a real collaboration and there’s an amazing team spirit in rehearsals.

“Kevin writes very intricately. Every line has got so much to it. He’s really keen to get across the rhythm of his piece and so I’ve been working with the actors to make sure they’ve been hitting the right beats.”

“And what about accents,” I ask, “are any of the actors from Yorkshire?”

“Most of them are from the North,” she explains, “but I’m the only one from Batley. And Batley does have its own fantastic accent. So I’ve been briefing them on how to say ‘Tesco’ properly!”

While Rebecca gets a cuppa, I turn my recorder on Joyce. “How important is a woman director for this play?” I ask.

“As someone who continually bangs on about there not being enough good parts for women in theatre I was very excited to get this role as a female director but, you know, I think it would be fine to have a male director too.

“It’s not just a female story about girls. It’s about their coach and their families and, as all plays are, about miscommunication and its resolution.”

“And, apart from the ball rolling to the back of the stage after an incomplete pass, what would you say has been your biggest challenge?” I ask.

“It’s a wonderfully dynamic play,” says Joyce, “with so many different styles going on. Some bits are kitchen sink drama, some daft comedy, some stylised movement with singing and dancing in there too. Trying to get all those elements feel like they’re the same play and they flow from scene to scene, that’s been the challenge.”

Before the mugs are back in the sink I ask actor Josie Cerise about their trip to the Mount Pleasant Stadium when some of the Batley Girls gave the cast a spot of coaching during a publicity photoshoot.

“We threw the ball around with them,” recalls Josie. “I like to think we picked it up quite quickly. We just have to look as if we know what we’re doing!

“But what really struck me was how passionate the young women are about this play. It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves and I feel a responsibility for telling that story with real truth and authenticity.”

“Okay, right,” calls Joyce. “Let’s get back to it.”

The Ruck is at Lawrence Batley Theatre this Friday and Saturday (tickets here) and then tours from the 18-22 September to the Theatre Royal Wakefield, Cast in Doncaster and finally The Civic, Barnsley.

 

“There’s no closure until it’s put in front of an audience.”

It’s just after seven and The Butchers Arms on Halifax Road is already buzzing. We battle through the players around the pool table and head upstairs where a buffet is being laid out.

“Remind me why we’re here,” I ask Creative Scene producer Vicky after we’ve ordered our drinks.

“We want an update on our play The Ruck, she says, “and Kevin and Craig are due to meet here tonight.”

It’s true. It’s been a while since I reported on the read-through around the big table in Creative Scene’s offices, so a re-cap is due.

The story so far. Commissioned by Creative Scene, playwright Kevin Fegan has written a play about Batley Bulldogs Girls’ Rugby team, coached by Craig Taylor. Last year, after an unbeaten season, they became the UK’s first female rugby squad to tour Australia. The Ruck is inspired by the girls’ exploits in both Batley and ‘down under’.

“We’ve now appointed a director, Joyce Branagh,” says Vicky, “and Rebecca Foster will be assistant director which will be great opportunity for her to work alongside an experienced professional.

“It’ll premiere at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in September,” she says, “before going on a Yorkshire-wide tour. And before that we’ll do some little 20 minute ‘shorts’ at places like Batley Festival and at the Rugby Club.”

Negotiating his way through some excited young children, Kevin joins us at the bar. “Vicky tell me you helped choose the director,” I say once he has his pint. “Do you like to be involved in the production process?”

“I do. I’m that kind of writer. We were clear we wanted a female director and I’m delighted we’ve appointed Joyce. I’ll be going along to the casting sessions and rehearsals too.”

“Do you have a type of person in mind for your characters?” I ask.

“No. I like to be surprised. Often it becomes apparent during the auditions who the right person is. You have to be careful not to close the door to what someone might bring to a role.”

“I like to be at the rehearsals as well, to be part of the team. I’m clear about what I’m good at and I want everyone else to be good at what they do. Everyone brings their own skills to a production.”

“And tonight it’s a presentation evening,” I suggest.

“Yes. Last year – hot on the heels of the Aussie tour – Craig asked me to present some trophies, which was lovely. And it’s been a while since I’ve seen them all, so it’ll be good to touch base.”

Kevin is keen to keep up his connection with the Rugby Club. “There’s no closure with a play until it’s put in front of an audience. I’m looking forward to hearing the comments of those who’ve inspired it. It matters to me what people think.”

While we’ve been talking Craig has arrived with large boxes of trophies. Once they’re laid out he joins us at the bar and he and Kevin seem to continue where they left off.

It turns out last year’s winning team have pretty much dispersed. “Some are old enough now for the open age women’s team,” Craig tells Kevin, “and some are now playing union.”

“You brought that in, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. The girls play both over there,” he says, meaning in Australia, “and it makes sense for them to play both league and union here too. The seasons don’t collide. So why can’t the girls play both?”

There have been other spin-offs from the Aussie tour too. A couple of the girls – including Craig’s own daughter, Millie – were invited to go on a New Zealand tour with the team that hosted them.

“And now they’ve been offered a full-time rugby league scholarship in New Zealand. They’re thinking of going out there to study and play full time,” Craig says, proudly.

“And I hear there’s a chance the play might go out to Australia too?” I say. “That would be great.”

“Having The Ruck put in front of audiences here in Yorkshire will be brilliant,” says Kevin. “Taking it to Australia would be a real bonus.”

Tickets for The Ruck’s premiere are on sale now.

“Touch and pass, kick some ass.”

“I was commissioned to hang around Batley Bulldogs to see if there was a play there,” says Kevin once everyone is settled around the table.

“I went to see the girls train, spoke to some of them and thought this is what I want to write about. As it happened, Batley Bulldogs Girls – who are UK champions – were about to go on tour to Queensland, Australia.”

CS_250516_008-EditThere are a dozen or more people around the big table in Creative Scene’s Dewsbury office. They’re all here for the first reading of The Ruck.

Playwright Kevin Fegan explains how he was invited to join the 60-strong tour group that, as well as the under 16s rugby league team, included parents, siblings and grandparents. “It was an amazing experience for us all, in different ways,” he says, cryptically.

“And so this is the outcome. It’s a developed first draft that I’m looking to improve so I’m hoping for some honest feedback from you all.”

CS_250516_016-EditThe readers include SceneMaker Rebecca and her students from the West Yorkshire Drama Academy, all poised to read their respective parts. For Kevin, and for the commissioners, it’s an opportunity to hear the play come alive.

Team captain Evie is here with her mum as is head coach Craig, with his eldest daughter and scrum half, Milly. They all know their experiences down under will feature heavily in what they’re about to hear.

“Okay,” says creative producer Vicky, “Let’s dive straight in. I’ll be reading stage directions. Scene One.”

For over an hour we hear how the team comes to terms with its latest recruit; how the players and their families prepare for departure and how, once arrived, relationships become strained in the antipodean sunshine. Evie’s mum giggles throughout.

ruck_reading-Edit“It sounds brilliant,” I say to Rebecca when they reach the end, “I can already imagine it on stage.”

“I don’t know a thing about rugby but I thought it was great,” she says. “For a first reading it was fantastic.

“There’s lots of drama in it,” she enthuses, “interesting relationships between believable characters, and important issues raised which is lovely to see. And I liked the reference to the famous people who’ve come from this area. It’s good to see Batley in a positive light.”

Fifteen-year-old Milly is swinging gently in one of the office chairs, “So, what was it like listening to that?” I ask.

“Good,” she says.

“You’ve done the double really: the first UK girls’ rugby team to tour abroad and now the first to inspire a play.”

Milly smiles broadly and her mum, Amanda, speaks for her: “It’s unbelievable really. So much of it brings back happy memories,” she turns towards her daughter, “when you all ran into the sea together and the bra incident… that was very funny.”

“I thought Kevin did well getting inside the heads of teenage girls from West Yorkshire,” I suggest to Evie at the other end of the table.

“On the way to games he’d come and sit at the back of the bus with us,” she says.

“Earwigging? For research purposes?”

“Listening to conversations,” she says, diplomatically.

“And what will you feel like in the theatre on that first night with lots of people watching this play and hearing about your escapades?”

“I don’t know,” says Evie. “I think it’ll be exciting.”

“It’ll be brilliant,” says her mum. “An amazing experience for all the girls, for all of us.”