After cricket, there has been no sport about which there has been so much rubbish written as football. Described sentimentally as ‘the beautiful game’, it is instead better regarded these days as a cynically-minded business enterprise that combines the impressionable young with the equally impressionable masses. Add generous lashings of alcohol, sky-high ticket prices and a dollop of homophobia and racism, and you have England’s national game in a nutshell. Not that it’s just England responsible for the decline in footballing standards; Patrick Marber, the author of the new play The Red Lion, must be hugging himself in glee at the timeliness of the FIFA scandal, so apposite are its themes of corruption when it comes to the première of his latest work.
Nonetheless, I accept that, as a non-football fan, I ventured to the Dorfman at the National with different expectations from a dyed-in-the-wool aficionado, and one of the many strengths of Marber’s generous and humane play is that it caters for all interests with just as much balance as it depicts its flawed characters. Marber’s return to the stage is in itself something to be given thanks for, given that he suffered from writer’s block for years and believed he would never write another play. He occupied himself by becoming one of the directors of his local club, Lewes FC, and it was out of the close observation of the everyday dealings of semi-professional football that his latest work arises.
As with his biggest hit, Closer, it focuses on a small cast of interlinked characters. Set in the dressing room of a going-nowhere club, the Lions, it focuses on the aged, seen-it-all ‘kit man’ Yates (Peter Wight) and his nemesis, the chippy, wheeler-dealer manager Kidd (Daniel Mays). The two clash over virtually everything to do with the Lions, but the tension is heightened by the appearance of a talented young player, Jordan (Calvin Demba). Jordan might just be the man to rescue the Lions from its doldrums, or to help the impecunious Kidd out of his financial woes by fair means or (mostly) foul ones. But all three of them are hiding secrets, leading to some electrifying confrontations.
You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy this play, thankfully. It uses sport as a metaphor rather than acting a documentary observation of the minutiae of the game; there are no lengthy scenes of explanation of the offside rule or similar. (Undoubtedly if you are a fan, however, you’ll get more out of some of the ‘inside jokes’.) Marber, always one of our most interesting playwrights linguistically, makes several fascinating choices; over and over again, he uses religious language and metaphor to convey a sense of there being a higher power that the characters are answerable to, whether that’s the Great Referee or a more conventionally divine being. And, after a slow-ish opening, the second and third acts crackle with the same wit and electrifying charge that his earlier plays, Closer and Dealer’s Choice, exhibited.
The performances are all excellent, as they have to be. Newcomer Demba has the least to do, but conveys a sense of wounded pride and naiveté as well as palpable physical presence. Mays, who gets the funniest lines and the most physical business, is a joy as the desperate manager who would probably sell his own grandmother if he thought that there was a viable business opportunity. And Wight, looking slightly like a less posh Simon Russell Beale, has a weighty physical presence that gives a mournful and elegiac quality to many of his speeches, as well as a stark emotional charge by the end.
This has been Marber’s year, with an excellent revival of Closer at the Donmar, some script-editing on The Beaux’ Stratagem and an upcoming loose adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country, again at the National, in the shape of Three Days In The Country. Yet I wonder if this thoughtful, gripping play might be remembered as the greatest achievement of them all.
The Red Lion at The Dorfman Theatre until September 30th. Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.