Flawed greatness, an accident of fate, a sad decline: these have always been the staples of tragedies both in literature and in life. In sport, too, these themes are often played out. Add to this the fact that, in the sporting world, the pressures at the top under the glare of publicity can exacerbate underlying mental health problems and you have the main ingredients of When the Eye Has Gone, a drama that is currently doing the rounds of various cricket grounds across the country.
The play tells the life story of Colin Milburn, a rambunctious batsman for Northamptonshire and England in the 1960s. He was devastatingly effective in his day but because his weight (around 18 stone) and his fun-loving lifestyle were perceived by selectors to be problems, he was in and out of the international team.
Just when, in 1969, he seemed finally to have established himself as an England star, he tragically lost an eye in a car crash. After an unsuccessful attempt to comeback, he never really found fulfilment away from the field of play. As alcohol took over, he became a sad figure. He died from a heart attack, aged just 48.
Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about catharsis, the process by which the dramatic presentation of tragedy can cleanse the soul. It’s a long way from Aristotle to Colin “Ollie” Milburn, but the story of the rise and fall of the portly cricketer who hid his problems behind a mask of jollity has all the ingredients the philosopher had in mind.
The Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) has sponsored this production as part of its role in raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing amongst its members. Good for them for having grasped this nettle, and for recognising the issues that can afflict those who professionally play a sport where the so-called glorious uncertainty of its outcomes can entertain spectators but torment the participants.
And so, fifty years after Colin Milburn’s Test debut his story is being told in drama. When the Eye Has Gone was written by ex-cricketer James Graham-Brown, who writes under the pseudonym Dougie Blaxland. He has consulted many who knew Milburn, so there is no doubting the accuracy of the portrayal.
The play is a real tour de force for actor Dan Gaisford, who holds the stage alone for a full hour and a quarter. Not only does he portray Milburn in all his moods, from euphoric joy to dark despair, he also plays around 50 other parts. He is particularly effective as Milburn’s worrying, controlling mother who, duster in hand, dispenses advice to her errant son throughout his life.
It quickly becomes irrelevant that the slim Gaisford looks nothing like Milburn (or, indeed, Milburn’s mum) as he takes us through the rollercoaster of the cricketer’s life.
The start and end points of the play are the final day of Milburn’s life. He is ensconced in his favourite North Briton pub with one last, large glass of gin and coke in his hand, coming face to face with his memories.
As he reflects on his life, the action switches rapidly between different times and locations. He is a young schoolboy, being taught hard lessons in life and in cricket by his single-minded father; he is in hospital finding out that his left eye has been removed and the right one may be irreparably damaged; he is in Brisbane, hearing Sir Donald Bradman describe his 243 against Queensland as the best innings he’s ever seen by an Englishman in Australia and; then he is back to middle age and a near-death sentence from his doctor that proved sadly accurate.
As you would expect, bearing in mind the subject, as the story unfolds there are many laughs amongst the tears.
The play is being performed at county cricket grounds around the country – last performance, appropriately at Northampton on 24 November. If you have any interest in the game of cricket, want to support the excellent work of the PCA or are simply a fan of good drama – or all three of these – I urge you to go and see this unusual production.
The excellence of Graham-Brown’s writing is matched by the quality of Dan Gaisford’s performance. It is an added bonus that the author subjects himself to a question and answer session at the end of the play.
You will learn something about what life was like as a professional cricketer in the 1960s, and about the rise and fall of one talented but non-conforming genius of the game. You will be engaged and entertained and, along the way, you may even experience that cleansing of the soul known as catharsis. Aristotle would approve.
More nformation and tickets for When the Eye Has Gone are available from TicketSource.