Dear England, National Theatre review ★★★★★
If you’re not a footie fan and the name ‘Gareth Southgate’ doesn’t bring to mind victory-crushing penalty shoot-out misses or managing the England national (men’s) team, then the less celebrated but no less interesting story of his reformation of the club’s culture – for the better – might be unbeknown to you too.
Such is the subject of leading contemporary playwright James Graham’s latest play Dear England: an interrogation of the toxic pressures placed on the England football team by senior management and the nation at large, with a heartwarming reflection on the seismic shift under way within. Whether you’re a mega fan, a novice or sit somewhere in between, this is a football story we can all get on board with.
After a brief flashback to the fateful moment in 1996, when Southgate’s penalty miss snatched all hope of England winning the Euros, the play jumps forward to 2016, when the player-turned-coach is appointed manager of the team – on an interim basis, initially. Clashing with Fifa bosses, who complain that he’s ‘woke’ and ‘soft’, Southgate poses the suggestion that the team’s problems are not on the pitch, but in the minds of its players, and brings in psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee, exuding compassion and empathy) to help them unpick and overcome their inherited trauma after 50 ‘years of hurt’.
Darragh Hand (Marcus Rashford) and Dear England cast at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
Graham, with the help of his frequent collaborator, the director Rupurt Goold (Tammy Faye, Ink), paints Southgate as a Ted Lasso-esque figure, buttering up senior management by bringing pastries to meetings and stating an ambition to ‘get the team smiling again’. He gives them a six-year plan, telling them to set their sights on the 2022 World Cup rather than the immediate tournament. Graham is keen to stress Southgate’s behind-the-scenes influence too: tearing down the club’s hierarchy, dissolving factions between the players and encouraging them to open up about their feelings.
In the body of Joseph Fiennes (The Mother, Shakespeare in Love), Southgate is a likeable listener with quiet charisma. Introductions to his original England team are met with knowing laughs from the audience as familiar characteristics and mannerisms of the players shine through. Will Close’s comedic impersonation of Harry Kane, inarticulate but kind, is especially apt.
The second half gives ample time to exploring the racist abuse the team’s non-white players are subjected to and, while sidelined, the victory of the England women’s team in the 2022 Euros is also recognised in one whoop-worthy scene.
Dear England cast at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
Cameos are made of former England managers, including Sven-Göran Eriksson with a laughable prosthetic forehead, while the recurring commentary from a smiley Gary Lineker is a pertinent reminder of the commentator’s long-running connection to the game, in light of his recent friction with the BBC.
In Goold’s production, montages featuring a cross-section of the British public are a reminder of the game’s importance to everyone – from fishmongers to priests and students. On designer Es Devlin’s stage, Jon Clark’s circular beams of lighting above and beneath the stage cleverly evoke a football stadium, while Ash J Woodward’s videography supplying archive footage of historic matches movingly supports the anecdotes being told on stage.
While on the surface, Dear England is a play about football – Southgate’s reshaping of the England team and paving the way to their first tournament final in 50 years – it’s more than that. What Graham delivers is a story about our national pride, and how this rests not in the hands of those leading our country, but on the shoulders of our football players out on the pitch.
|What||Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
09 Oct 23 – 13 Jan 24, 7:00 PM – 9:50 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|