tue 21/05/2024

Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre review - still a winner in its new West End home | reviews, news & interviews

Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre review - still a winner in its new West End home

Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre review - still a winner in its new West End home

James Graham's play works like a big joke that a whole nation is in on

They shoot, they score: the cast of 'Dear England'All images Marc Brenner

It was interesting, in the same week that the England football team trounced Italy 3-1 in a Euros qualifier, to see Dear England again, the National Theatre smash that has just embarked on a West End run at the Prince Edward Theatre.

One of the three goals was a penalty scored by captain Harry Kane. England manager Gareth Southgate’s task of fixing the England team's woeful record on that score seems to be complete: England have overcome their fear of penalties. 

No England fan would be that confident, however, and James Graham’s play, among other things, spells out why. Buried under all the swagger of the standard English attitude to its football team – whose inherent brilliance some believe in as intensely they do in the imperial might of the England of old – lies a deep-rooted and debilitating fear of failure, Graham suggests. And not just among the fans: the players themselves are brought low by this feeling, too, unexpectedly skying or scuffing the ball when they are on the penalty spot. Southgate (Joseph Fiennes, pictured below, left), whose traumatic fluff in 1996 has never been forgotten (or forgiven in some quarters), has to face his own trauma alongside his team.

Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate in Dear EnglandHis lengthy "Dear England" letter to the country, released online in June 2021, urging tolerance and understanding, supplies Graham with the key message of his play: it’s not just about winning, it’s about how you lose the game. Lose fearlessly and honestly, and you are still a role model.

Of course, Southgate was vilified for this attitude by those who liked to brand him as “woke” and caused mayhem in the streets when England lost. Worse, they directed monkey-chants at Black players and piled onto them online. Raheem Sterling (Kel Matsena) gets a stirring anti-racist speech, after which the team take the knee at each match.

Urged on by the sports psychologist Pippa Grange (new cast member Dervla Kirwin, playing her as an Aussie) whom Southgate has appointed amid much derision, we see the players gradually begin to open up and be more concerned for each other’s welfare. The word “love” starts to appear in their dialogue. They start to score penalties. A nation dares to hope.

This amiability and positivity give the play its warm core and its gentler satirical elements (there are also some broader, less welcome moments featuring a cartoonish Theresa May, Boris and Liz Truss taking penalties, all missing). The evening plays like a big joke that a whole nation is in on, viz the moment when Gary Lineker (Gunnar Cauthery) comes onstage munching a bag of Walker’s crisps, and the audience immediately gets it. Even more noise greets Crystal Condie as coach Sarina Wiegman when she walks on with the England women’s World Cup trophy.

At the centre of this joke are two men whom the English seem happy to ridicule. Southgate, the man in a waistcoat who’s proud to come from Crawley, is a natural target – you only have to be an England manager to suffer that fate. Fiennes so inhabits the role, every vowel sound and head tilt uncannily right, that you fear for the person who has to substitute for him. It’s an extraordinary performance that balances caricature with a thoroughgoing understanding of Southgate’s innate decency.  

Just as vital to the success of the whole, though, is Will Close’s Harry Kane (pictured below). Kane is rich pickings, an endless source of dopey pronouncements, but Close, too, finds the real person, a passionate captain who grows before our eyes. HIs kindness is palpable, his leadership skills admirable and his distress at missing a key penalty in the World Cup quarter final in 2022 genuinely moving. The man who knows what that feels like gives him a big managerial hug. 

Will Close as Harry Kane in Dear EnglandRupert Goold’s production has made the move from the Olivier, with its wide stage and revolves, with maximum success. Es Devlin’s simple set is still a winner, its white overhead giant oval of light, which can rise and lower, both evoking the Wembley arch and a sense of an interrogatory spotlight focused on the team. They return barring two members of the first cast, with Griffin Stevens now playing iron-headed Harry Maguire and Denzel Baidoo as bible-reading Bukayo Saka. Around the rim of the oval, backgrounds are spectrally projected and scores are registered, along with stills and clips of previous England goofs (and the solitary big World Cup win in 1966 that still stalks the English psyche).

On the team, a standout is Josh Barrow’s Jordan Pickford, the England goalie, whose jittery bouncing in front of the net, his arms wide in a crucifixion pose, his feet splayed out, catches the man exactly. The choreography of the piece (by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf) is impressive throughout, setting up the intricate moves of the team on the pitch as forcefully as the street scenes of rioting/celebrating, depending on the match result. When John Hodgkinson comes on as Gianni Fantini, president of Fifa, and does a mad, bendy dance, I wished there were even more of it in the piece. As it is we get the team, spurred on by Kane’s dad-dancing, all twerking and doing the Sprinkler in a perfect show of solidarity.

Yes, at times Southgate’s ruminations are on the “woke” side, and his pronouncements verging on “soft” (as we see ex-footballer Matt Le Tissier claiming), and the script and pacing could usefully be tightened here and there. But this is still a terrific evening of navel-gazing that the nation has to keep doing, in search of an answer to what it means in these post-Brexit days to be not just an England footballer, but English. The two, for Graham, are one thing. For Kane, this means not caring what others think: take out your false teeth and dance with them as England player Nobby Stiles did after the win of ’66. Be More Nobby, he urges, a slogan that deserves a bumper sticker.

Joseph Fiennes inhabits the role, every vowel sound and head tilt uncannily right

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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