James Willstrop discusses his passion for squash & for the arts as he looks forward to the British Open

April 07 2023

James Willstrop, the 39-year-old veteran of the PSA World Tour often balances his squash with amateur dramatics & the former World No.1 will be looking to perform on stage at the spectacular Rep Theatre in the heart of Birmingham at the forthcoming PSA British Open when the championships, affectionately known as the ‘Wimbledon of Squash’, will be staged in Birmingham from the 9th to 16th April.

In an enthralling interview with the PSA, James Willstrop discusses his passion for squash & for the arts.

Q: James, this year’s British Open will be taking place at The Rep theatre. You’re no stranger to that environment, can you explain what kick-started your passion for acting?
“I was introduced to it by my parents & I loved being in school plays. I’ve always been a bit of a show off & I loved all aspects of performing.

“When I had my hip surgery back in 2014, I went to the local theatre group near where I live, not with the intention to act but to get involved in something I loved. I ended up getting put in a play, I found out the schedule worked around the squash & I was hooked.

I’ve never really stopped & I absolutely love it.”

Talk us through what the experience was like to appear on stage as an actor for the first time?
“It was in front of 20 people in a little village hall & I got an absolute buzz out of it. When you do something so intensely like this [squash] for so many years there is so much repetition every day. I love squash so much, but you need something else & this [acting] is what I love doing.

“Some people would think it was the worst thing in the world, but I’ve always enjoyed getting up in front of people to speak or play, whatever it is.”

You teamed up with a number of school children in Birmingham for a special performance of ‘Outside the Box’ which brought the story of squash to life – talk us through that experience
“It was through Jake Oldershaw, who runs Untied Artists. He’s a massive squash fan, he got to know about my love of the theatre & action & he got in touch through Zena Wooldridge [WSF President].

“We then struck up a relationship & he had an idea for a play about the history of the game. It was talking about the likes of Jahangir [Khan], Jonah [Barrington] & we got school kids around Birmingham involved.

“It was ahead of the Commonwealth Games, he got the funding, we got the go ahead & it was absolutely fantastic. It was a very special opportunity, I played myself which was funny & I did a little rap about the history of squash.

“We had a great time & the kids were fantastic to work with. It got a lot of schools talking about the Commonwealth Games & squash for the first time. Sport, theatre & the arts are just so good for kids.”

In squash you’re often putting on a show for spectators much like a theatre performance – has your squash career helped prepare you for acting at all?
“It definitely does. A lot of people find it quite unusual that I do this other thing. I guess it is, but I think that there are a lot of similarities really.

“I have to learn new lines & rehearse, & there are a lot of similar disciplines to working on squash every day in terms of practising your shots. There is also the buzz behind the scenes before you first go on for a match or on stage. The difference there is that on stage you enjoy it with other actors, whereas with squash you’re on your own.”

It won’t be your first time playing squash in a theatre given you’ve also competed in Dubai Opera & Theatre Graslin – what is it about a theatre that makes is a great venue for squash?

“You’ve got the history that is there with a lot of theatres & there is an ornateness in the buildings themselves. It gives them a certain atmosphere which lends itself to squash. In Nantes [Theatre Graslin], it was an incredible venue & so beautiful as well.

“There was also Dubai Opera, which was maybe more modern as well, but these places have so much history. When I go to the theatre it’s about the sharing of the situation with people. Film & art & all these things don’t quite do it the way theatre does, you share the experience for two hours.

“The squash court is a bit of a stage with the lights shining on the glass box.”

This will be your 19th British Open – just what does this tournament mean to you?
“The days of me winning it are probably over [laughs]. Everyone knows the prestige of this tournament, you go back to the days of Jonah, for example, & I also grew up watching Jahangir, Jansher & the great legends of the 80s & 90s.

“It’s a wonderful showcase for the game & everyone wants to win it. I’ve had some tough times in the past, I’ve played in three finals & not quite managed to get it, but that’s the way sport goes & I’ve had some great memories down the years playing the British Open.”