Olivier Theatre, London
Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold
In 1981 Bill Shankly the legendary manager of Liverpool football club famously said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
Bear that quote in mind when seeing James Graham's new play Dear England which is based around England manager Gareth Southgate and takes its title from the letter that Southgate, the manager of the England football team, addressed to the country in 2021 on the eve of that year’s European Championship Finals. In the same tournament some 25 years previously, Southgate had (in)famously missed his kick in the penalty shootout against Germany. But when country called in 2016 he returned to the national team as manager, coaching his players to greater achievement than previous international squads had accomplished in decades.
Graham’s ability to spot the dramatic potential of this nation’s highs and lows is unsurpassed, and this play, with his commentary on England and its relationship with the beautiful game, makes for an evening of mostly sparkling, funny and well observed entertainment.
Joseph Fiennes steps up to the spot as Southgate, visually capturing the essence of the man. Vocally however, he never quite nails his character’s Crawley twang and early in the first act (for this is a play with two halves) he sounds a little too much like Michael Crawford’s comic creation Frank Spencer. Fiennes is however compelling as we see him batting his post-1996 inner demons and channelling that energy into motivating his young players.
There are some outstanding supporting performances on offer. For a show that sports a cast list packed with recognisable characters, Gunnar Cauthery’s take on BBC pundit Gary Lineker hits the back of the net. Likewise Will Close scores an absolute blinder with his awkward and gangly England captain, Harry Kane. We laugh at the brilliance of Close’s work, his performance capturing Kane’s apparent inarticulacy as a man to whom words do not come easy and whose gift lies in his ability to kick a ball. It is a mildly shaming moment for the audience when later on in the second half Kane reveals that he is aware that people laugh at how he speaks. On moments such as these is great drama constructed, where not only the great and the good are lampooned, but also those who have paid to buy a ticket to the theatre are themselves the subject of its wrath.
Yet again, Es Devlin stuns a National audience with her visionary stage design. Devlin’s inspired use of concentric revolves, rotating underneath Ash J Woodward’s projections that themselves range from displaying the world’s stadia to penalty shootout scores has to be seen to be believed. In a production of such world class stagecraft however, some of the wigs and hair coverings are frankly appalling. With the level of creative talent available to the National, some of the wig work (those of Sven-Göran Eriksson and Gianni Infantino in particular) is disgraceful.
Graham’s writing ranges from profoundly perceptive to occasional bursts of politics that belie a shallow bias. His dialogue lauds the players’ taking of the knee in the 2022 Qatar World Cup, but is silent on the slavery and hundreds of worker deaths that went into the construction of that tournament’s venues, a myopia that detracts from the play’s otherwise overarching brilliance.
Always with an eye to what will make a fine theatrical event, Graham has chosen an impressive backdrop of football anthems as his soundtrack. Listen out for The Verve, Fat Les and even Neil Diamond and dream of Dear England, The Musical.
No doubt producers and writers are already hard at work, transforming Dear England for its inevitable transition to the screen and when that happens, with a few edits here and there, it will make a great movie. Until then, catch it if you can at the National.
Football as a matter of life and death? It is much more serious than that.
Runs until 11th August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner