Former world number one squash player James Willstrop has a secret passion. Rob Gilmour finds out why the Yorkshireman loves treading the boards
The glass court may look resplendent on stage, but James Willstrop is not thinking of his day job; he’s making a beeline for the head honcho of Dubai Opera at the lavish £260 million arts venue.
Forget about squash, the sport Willstrop wrote about with such raw passion in his William Hill Sports Book of the Year-nominated Shot and a Ghost five years ago, right now he wants to chat to Jasper Hope, Dubai Opera’s chief executive, about theatre, stage and the arts.
“It’s a beautiful place and it’s got that connection which other players might not think about as much as me,” says Willstrop, a former world No 1 who has recovered from career-threatening injury in the last two years for a second coming here.
“If I am playing in a city and there is a play on near the venue I will walk into that theatre, even if I’m not there to watch a show. Theatres are exciting places for me and so to be performing in one like this, is a great privilege.”
These days, Willstrop’s life is a three-pronged attack: squash professional, family man and actor. The 33-year-old Yorkshireman is in the UAE as one of the top eight competitors in the season-ending PSA World Series Finals to decide the best squash player over the previous nine months.
During his week in Dubai, Willstrop is dovetailing between playing the world’s best and learning lines for his next amateur dramatic stage role; portraying an ex-RAF pilot with a drink problem in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue.
“It works well. Squash is intense and I find something completely different a great thing, if you can tap into it while you are a top level player,” he admits. “It is repetitive working day in, day out, and the mental intensity is high. It’s a lot higher than a lot of jobs, so it’s great to have this acting outlet.”
Rewind a few years and Willstrop’s enthusiasm for the stage first began as a child thanks to a lead part in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
However his dedication towards squash scuppered dreams of more roles. Soon he was being coached by his father, Malcolm, at Pontefract Squash Club and after turning pro in 2002, he joined the tour in this most unforgiving of sports housed within four walls.
Willstrop has enjoyed a fruitful career to date. He has won many tour titles, but has fallen just short in the ‘majors’: three times a British Open runner-up and a losing world championship finalist. Two of those losses have been at the hands of perennial rival Nick Matthew, the gritty Yorkshireman and three-time world champion. Until January this year, Willstrop hadn’t beaten Matthew for nearly a decade in tournament play. But a win in New York suggested that there could be one final push towards major honours, notably at next year’s Commonwealth Games.
Where once his squash-obsessed mind was cluttered with anxieties, the desire to succeed and the tiring grind of the squash circuit, acting has given Willstrop renewed focus.
And with a summer production at Ilkley Playhouse looming, talk returns to the theatre. “I’ve missed acting without really knowing it,” he reflects. “I remember at school if I got a part, it lit the fire and it was a great feeling. I had that thought in me all the time growing up and on tour. A lot of people love books and TV, but the theatre with the live aspect does it for me.”
So he began to research ways to find am-dram groups during the summer off-season.
“I didn’t realise so many groups existed. There is a bit of a stigma to amateur dramatics. Yes, it can be second rate but the thing that hooked me was going to see one. As soon as I saw that effort, it became more tangible.”
Three years ago, he joined Adel Players, based in a badminton hall in North Leeds, with the initial aim of helping out on their next production, Journey’s End by R C Sherriff. Thrust into regular rehearsals he was handed the lead role, with the group “having faith” in Willstrop.
Willstrop says that both squash and acting are similarly entwined when the court beckons or the curtain rises.
“I’ve been backstage at matches with my heart thumping like nobody’s business thinking ‘what the hell am I doing!’
“I’ve done it so many times that in a play, it’s really just people’s entertainment and it’s all fun, like squash is just a game.”
He recalls an audience member coming backstage in tears. “You’ve affected them, elicited emotion and squash can do that too,” admits Willstrop.
Regarded as one of the most gifted players of his generation, Willstrop, who stands at 6ft 3in, gets a fair few comments about his foray into acting.
“People are completely confused by what I’m doing. I don’t know why. In the end, we all love being told stories. Why we should think about theatre in a different way, I’m not too sure.”
His wife, Vanessa Atkinson, a former women’s world champion, thinks otherwise.
“It’s wonderful seeing him perform and he’s so confident and ‘good’ that I’ve honestly just been able to sit back, enjoy the plays he has been in, and almost forget that it’s him up there.”
That’s in stark contrast, she says, to watching him play squash. The trophy eluded him, but his form bodes well for another Commonwealth Games tilt on the Gold Coast.
He won a silver medal behind Matthew at Glasgow 2014 – and what a potential ending it would be if two Yorkshiremen could again contest the final as their careers wind down.
So, the stage is set.
“It might not work for everyone, but drama has been a good thing, it just helps to relax me,” he adds.
James Willstrop is performing in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea – the best-known of his plays – at Ilkley Playhouse until July 22