Trafalgar Studios, London – until 2 December 2017
In many ways football and the theatre are similar. Both have intervals, both provide an entertaining evening or matinee performance and it isn’t particularly original or insightful to compare Premier League and West end ticket prices. I recently looked at purchasing tickets for my partner. He’s a Chelsea fan, I soon gave up and looked towards how much socks were.
This amended revival of the Patrick Marber’s work about low league football team (He has previously run Lewes FC) is quite different from its original production at the National Theatre, with Daniel Mays, Calvin Demba and Peter Wight. Newcastle’s Live Theatre has made the team Northern and the play shorter, knocking an hour of its original running time.
As someone who loves the gossip of football but finds the beautiful game dull as dishwater, this is my kind of sports play. Stephen Tompkinson as manager Kidd is a highly strung, deeply passionate man who is mentally satisfied by the challenge of Non-League football but struggles financially. His role seems to be to find new talents to profit off of rather than improve the fortunes of his side (currently second in the league) so when a young player, Jordan, (Dean Bone) seems to come from nowhere Kidd sees pound signs.
It is Johnny Yates that sees the potential for his beloved team to succeed. John Bowler plays Yates as a man who is utterly drained, a man who has given his life to club from cradle and perhaps eventually grave. His father was a Red Lion, he was a Red Lion, one of the best, and he ultimately failed to lead the Red Lions to victory. It leads to a breakdown and the shell of a man the audience see before us.
The Red Lion is full of humour and the stakes seem higher when men and their team are so low. The director Max Roberts has really seen something in this play that isn’t just about football. It is about love, loss and hoping the world will treat you right. Yates is a loyal kit man who cannot and won’t accept Kidd in his club, Kidd is corrupt but his real hope is a strong relationship with Yates, the one man who his father adored. The lost Jordan, desperately seeking solace in football and Christianity, feels out of place for many reasons. He seems gentle, ambitious but his darkest secret will not only destroy him but the club and these men he has come to respect.
Whilst I think the original running time was unnecessary something does feel lost in the cut. The play starts with great humour; Tompkinson recreating his sending off by a referee works beautifully in a staging that feels like we are in small football stands. His dismissal of “Ladies Football” ruining his pitch felt like a real glimpse into how people talk in private. The vulgar language suited to the terraces and dressing rooms (probably a lot like theatre) When that darkness comes it feels sudden, with the turn taking place in one conversation.
Bowler’s Yates talks in a hushed whisper, a man who is waiting to feel something again and being the kit man is the closest he will get. Tompkinson excels at the humour and the eventual downfall of his character. Kidd is a desperate man who has been lucky so far. The Northern setting brings a real edge to this. The North East accents make the script flow. The urgency to leave and do better is relatable wherever you are from but Bone plays Jordan with real hope, a man who believes the world is a good place after all.
It also feels timely. The play is about masculinity; their relationships with their fathers, their wives and children and themselves. It often blurs the lines of what is expected in a football dressing room; the intimacy of massages and the forehead kisses are the closest they get to showing affection but the secret they keep made me realise how the recently revealed sexual abuse scandals happen. For many these men are their family, why would they let them down?