Here's to you, Mrs Reynolds

Adventurous theatre delves into "Brown's Britain".

Hoodie with a heart, tart with same, and plucky granny: at first glance the character list of Mrs Reynolds and the Ruffian is pretty standard issue. That said, Gary Owen's new urban fable for the Watford Palace does have a rather winsome combination of grit and charm.

It's a homily on the hot potato of youth delinquency in "Brown's Britain", and in particular the strategy of restorative justice, where the offender is required to make amends in some way for the damage caused. In this instance, repairs must be made to the victim's garden, thus teeing up a proliferation of metaphors, stated and unstated, relating to gardening - bad seeds, not all roses in the garden - you get the picture.

That the play breaks out of cliché is down to some gutsy and funny writing, and a great central performance from Morgan Watkins as the eponymous ruffian. He's a familiar type: mis-matched trackies, wet-look hair gel, body too big for him. Watkins slopes and sidles round the stage, always on the oblique, avoiding eye contact. Vocally he does a nice line in the teenage whine that is deliberately unexpressive for fear of betraying weakness. He is gobby - quite literally so, as he hawks lustily into Mrs Reynolds's tea, and during their critical show-down, spits savagely in her face. Crucially Owen also gives him a shocking back-story. He is both repulsive and endearing, clever and naïve: in short, complicated. Watching him break down, a little boy lost, and try different laddish registers as he tries different "mates" on his mobile, is genuinely moving.

The blend of savage realism and comedy is a tricky alloy to get right, and I'm not entirely convinced that the cast always have it nailed. If anything they are slightly over-sparkly and twinkly for this grubby, muddied world (but not sparkly enough for a send-up of it).

Initially Trudie Goodwin (veteran star of The Bill) seems a little too trim and reedy, a little too young to play Mrs Reynolds. After all it would be a lot funnier to have someone genuinely ancient shouting "bollocks". But by the end of the show I was beginning to suspect that director Brigid Larmour was playing a longer and more patient game here, and quietly messing with ideas of what it means to be old. And all credit to Owen for writing in a role for women "in the middle way". Even the title seems to craftily lay down the gauntlet to expectation, with its coy, dated nomenclature.

Mrs Reynolds certainly has reserves of steel, and is an expert at the laconic put-down. It becomes apparent that she is as much of a player as Jay. She also has some delightfully dry schoolmarmish moments: in the little municipal garden, where only the graffiti blooms, she uses the spray-paint obscenities for a disquisition on the importance of spelling. The legend STACEY LYKS COCK is written by someone "trying to tell us something about Stacey". But we can't be exactly sure what it is. "And why not? Because of poor spelling."

Like the writing, the design of the play seems to flirt with, and then just sidestep the banal. The show opens with barbed wire and roses in opposing corners of the stage - so far, so obvious - but when the scene shifts to the outdoor space, a defaced wall emerges, which appears to be holding back a truly mountainous tide of rubbish, the crap of ages. It makes Mrs Reynolds's clean-up efforts look at once pointless and heroic. Colourful projections show the rampant graffiti blossoming before being dutifully whitewashed by Jay.

Owen charts a skilful course through the changing dynamics between old lady and young offender, and his play is an upbeat testament to the redemptive power of a spot of nurturing and a spot of gardening. But towards the end of the play he appears to tack on a whole other story: Mrs Reynolds is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and suddenly we are catapulted into another play's worth of inquiry about assisted suicide, which we are galloped through at unseemly pace. The plot not so much thickens as curdles. Incidentally, the sketchy background details relating to pram-face neighbour and love interest Mel, who has shagged her way through her self-esteem issues, also seems deserving of more attention; this narrative perhaps merits promotion from sub-plot.

But it seems ungrateful to bemoan such superabundance. This is quality new writing staged by Larmour and her team that might just put Watford on the map for something other than being on its edge.

OLIVER BURSTON
Show Hide image

How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism