Trafalgar Studios, London – until 2 December 2017
Post-show Q&A hosted by Mates co-founder Terri Paddock on Thursday 9 November
It is inexplicable to me the passion that football generates. The emotions, devotion and fervour of watching 22 players kick a ball about a muddy field, watched, if you’re in the dog and duck leagues by a handful of diehards or, if you’re Manchester United, 75,000 fans each game, is beyond comprehension to someone entirely immune to its attraction.
What’s clear, watching Patrick Marber’s football drama, The Red Lion, is that he is obviously a fan of the beautiful game. His passion, intimate knowledge and respect for the sport, is heard in every, acutely observed, line of dialogue and is seen in his splendid characterisation.
More than that, he got me, a non-believer, onside for the entire 95 minutes playing time without any sneaky fouls being committed. What I know about football could easily be accommodated on a (very small) stickit note. Worse, I’m married to a man who lives, breathes and has an encyclopeadic knowledge of the sport.
But I sat in the stalls of London’s Trafalgar Studios engrossed and entertained by premier league performances from Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler and Dean Bone, in the West End return of The Red Lion. It is set in the dressing room of amateur side, The Red Lions, who play in the Northern League, but I couldn’t help thinking that Marber is really writing about a team closer to his heart, who also play in red.
The playwright got involved with Lewes FC when living in Sussex. Indeed, he even bought into it after an appeal went out to save the club from financial destitution. The Isthmian League team has spent the last 50 years bouncing up and down leagues and having spells when finances were so tight it looked like they would fold.
They have also had their fair share of controversial managers so Marber didn’t have to look far for inspiration when he decided, some years later, to write this play. This is less a story about football and more about trust, loyalty and ambition, about relationships, ideology and dirty dealing, that makes and taints as much in life as in the sport.
John Yates (Bowler) is the veteran kit-man who we first meet ironing the home strip.
There’s a pleasing and pungent smell muscle rub permeating throughout the auditorium as the audience arrives. Yates, a local legend who has given his life to the club, is meticulously pressing the team tops and laying out the socks.
In struts Tompkinson’s Jimmy Kidd, the restless and ambitious team manager, who launches into an extensive diatribe about the state of the pitch which has everyone laughing.
His timing is immaculate, with every insult about linesmen, women footballers, volunteer groundsmen and opposition teams, recognised by the knowing audience and perfectly delivered.
It is a faultless performance that embraces the passion and the sad reality of a manager’s lot.
It’s not all about multi-million pound transfer fees and international players – it’s about bunging your star player a few quid and keeping the ref happy with his favourite biscuits.
Kidd is prepared to cut any deal to rescue himself and the club from debt.
So Kidd’s eyes light up when a promising new young player, Jordan, shows that he appears to have a natural flair for the game.
For Kidd, it’s a business and Jordan is a commodity. Old school Yates simply wants what’s best for both the boy and the game.
The Red Lion, which previously played at the National Theatre, is more than a play about football – thank god.
It is terrifically well written, beautifully acted by all three men but particularly the outstanding Tompkinson, and superbly directed by Max Roberts.
Running at the Trafalgar Studios until December 2.
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