Trafalgar Studios, London – until 2 December 2017
Originally produced at the National Theatre in 2015, a new production of Patrick Marber’s re-worked football play The Red Lion is now resident at Trafalgar Studios 2. It transfers from Newcastle’s Live Theatre, and stars Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler and Dean Bone.
Red Lion FC is a northern, semi-professional club with an ambitious manager and not a lot of cash. When Yates (club stalwart turned kit man) discovers an incredible new talent, Jordan, manager Jimmy shows a cautious interest – but soon senses pound signs when he sees the lad play. Yates becomes suspicious when Jimmy tries to rush a contract through, and before long it’s more than just dirty kit that’s being aired in the changing room. What future will be left for the trio?
If the idea of watching a 95-minute play about football is putting you off – don’t let it. It might be the setting for the whole thing (inspired by Marber’s own involvement in non-league football), but it’s about so much more than that. The press of austerity lingers (“the state is not your mate”) as all three men struggle to make ends meet, all the while pursuing their dedication to the game – and loyalty is an ever-present theme. But as well as some darkness, there is plenty of light thanks to a wonderfully funny script from Marber; one-liners aplenty, peppered with expletives and raking in the laughs.
Patrick Connellan’s set design brings the audience into the Red Lion’s home changing room. The intimacy of Studio 2’s space is ideal for this setting, evoking memories of school PE lessons and inviting you into the action. Some subtle lighting changes, as scenes draw to a close, shift the atmosphere and focus right in on the characters – it’s they who are important, not the surroundings.
The cast have all transferred with the production to London, with Tompkinson as Jimmy, Bowler as Yates and Bone as Jordan.
Dean Bone plays the wide-eyed Jordan with a sense of innocence, but always hinting that there might be something more going on that he wants to keep hidden. His enthusiasm for the game and his own progression is evident; Bone’s portrayal has a relatable honesty to it. Yates has had a varied history at the club: idolised player, failed manager, and now everyone’s favourite kit man. In John Bowler’s performance is a natural warmth, which is clearly what draws everyone at the club to him – but there is sadness in his eyes, slowly making its way to the surface.
As Jimmy, Stephen Tompkinson shines. The enterprising manager aspires to greatness, seeing himself as a bit of a wheeler-dealer, but more often than not simply proves himself to be a rather desperate man. Tompkinson’s comic timing is fantastic, landing each zinger and the audience lapping it up; partly thanks to this, Jimmy starts off as a likeable figure, though this starts to erode as the character’s selfish nature comes to the fore.
My verdict? Great all-round entertainment that gives you something to think about, thanks to top class cast & creatives – back of the net!