The Red Lion (Theater Review)

4 / 5

I’ve always thought football a waste of time. I’m even more confused by the global-spanning obsession in the World Cup. A bunch of overpaid tabloid-smeared individuals, whose personal lives generally overpower their skill, kicking a ball to and fro. But enter a tired, greying man in his fifties, plugging in the iron. Dodgy knees, extension leads, dingy changing room. Here we are in Red Lion territory, the non-league (but supposedly going places) football club. It’s a bit grim, tattered around the edges, in need of a lick of paint and all that, but functional.

And so very full of love.

And this man, his physical state mimicking that of the room, is Yates (Peter Wright), the club’s trusted kit man, clawing, if achingly slowly, to keep the crumbling place in order. But ambitious manager Kidd (Daniel Mays) wants more. With a promising new player, Jordan (newcomer Calvin Demba) in the wings, he is desperate to up the club’s dwindling status, struggling against the restrictive chains of ‘the board’, his savage passion for the game fueling a long and hard battle. But Yates too wants Jordan, wants to nurture him, to bring up a fatherly (if slightly withering) wing for shelter and support. And so the young lad is caught in a more personal clash of spirit.

Writer Patrick Marber, whose well-traversed hand has penned such notable plays as 1997’s Closer, later made into a film starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman (naturally), pulls on his experiences as director of Lewes FC. Less Hollywood, more East Sussex. This personal foray into the community driven side of the game brings out a melting pot of emotion.

Now, the question that I imagine is on everyone’s minds is do I have to really love football to sit through two hours of footie-based discussion? Well no, not at all. The Red Lion has unexpected appeal. It’s more than just football. And perhaps more surprisingly, it’s altered my view of the sport somewhat (a mean feat by my unfairly biased standards.) It’s never thick with technical dialogue – if you know what a football pitch looks like, or probably more fittingly in the Red Lion’s case, what it is supposed to look like, you’ll at best get some of the jokes.

Daniel Mays. Daniel Mays. With that trademark Essex bray and pole-like stance, he can bloody well act. Once described as the “linchpin” in last year’s perfection skimming black comedy Mojo, the man’s presence seems to have, if not grown, leveled. When Kidd leaves, even for the slimmest of moments, hovering just behind the door on the left, I wanted him back on stage. The energy he brings to any role is second to none, like a glowing curly haired spaniel bouncing around the space, but with added aggression and a more hair-free chest. There must be a superhuman explanation for accumulating such springiness.

And even if the energy of the writing spills over in places – unnecessarily long passes between Kidd and Yates come to mind – I’d take that raw unspoiled energy with a few moments of wordy confusion over lifeless sufficiency any day.

Let’s just say Mays is not afraid to use his whole body in a performance, as are all three men. You have to applaud them for stripping down to their underwear, hundreds of scrutinizing eyes scanning their entire being, out of curiosity if anything. The whole play seems to converge on the theme of childhood and, without sounding too pretentious, the picture of three grown-ish men (two and a half men, if you like) just standing there, the strip lights illuminating their bare skin – there’s something so child-like about it. While Jordan has his head firmly on his shoulders, asking all the right questions and shouting for the right answers, Kidd is the true baby. His name says it all. He’s got all that pent-up ambition that school leavers amass, simmering under and over the surface. Exposed and lonely, they all exist solely in the conversation they have with each other.

The ecstasy of running around the pitch, cold wind blowing icy tears; the need for success, however vicarious, that fatherly instinct; the utter, pure desperation for status, to prove beyond mere words what winning is… those needs and feelings are completely stripped back. Through the set you really feel the grimness they are living in, only heightening each character’s grit. The old school peg hooks, massage-chair-cum-ironing-board (elastic camping cords really do have endless uses), the damp around the lights. A spiraling final act leaves emotions high and problems even deeper in their well of shit. Yet the journey there is a memorable one.

With comedy in its veins, the story winds down a less trodden road, embedded in that one community of people. That image of a row of red shirts, ironed and hung one, two, three, by the motherly hand of Yates, unexpectedly sears onto the mind. It symbolizes all that football can be. I won’t pretend to understand the appeal, still in my mind a bunch of overpaid tabloid-smeared individuals kicking a ball to and fro, but a bunch with a burning passion. An all-consuming reason for life. Surely that can translate something to us all.

The Red Lion is playing at the National Theatre, London until 30th September

Imogen Bristow, Theater Critic

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