It’s not very often in the Venn diagram of life that the worlds of theatre and football occupy the same space, but as playwright James Graham has already proved, whether it’s politics, quiz shows or TV evangelists, there’s always a story to be told. Dear England, which played at the National in the first half of the year now transfers to the West End’s Prince Edward theatre under the direction of Rupert Goold.
Most people, football fans or not, can remember that night in 1996 when England were kicked out of the Euro’s at the semi-final stage. One man will certainly never forget it; Gareth Southgate’s entire career has been defined by that one missed penalty.
Twenty years later, Southgate would become England manager, a job he still holds to this day, and while his team have yet to pick up any silverware, no-one can deny he’s radically improved the fortunes of the team. It’s here that Graham steps in, and tells the story of the team turnaround, while exploring the motivations of a man still haunted by his past.
The team is struggling when Southgate takes over, and Graham paints the new manager as a quietly inspirational leader; a genuinely driven man who wants success for the team, and sport, that he loves. Some will call him woke, or too into the touchy-feely stuff, but we learn through this play how his team hold him in high regard.
Dear England spans the 2018 World Cup, the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, and the 2022 World Cup in Quatar. James Graham is well known for his plays about politics, and this one honours that, with politics on and off the pitch playing a mid-field position. The fact that Southgate took over in the midst of Brexit and the Theresa May to Boris Johnson era provides some of the rich comedy that this play employs so well.
While I hesitate to say this, Dear England is very much a game of two halves. The first act has some lengthy scenes where Southgate has brought in Psychologist Pippa Grange, played wonderfully by Dervla Kirwan. Here the young players, share their hopes, dreams and fears. It’s a lot of exposition and very little of the beautiful game, but it does help us explore the mindsets of men who have so much pressure heaped upon them, while at the same time examining the nations love affair with the sport.
The second act is more of a nail-biter, firing through the Euro’s and Quatar, while showing more of the national response. It’s also here we see the racism faced by players, the response by Southgate and the team, and the toll it took on all of them. The highs and lows that come after half-time are indeed moving.
Es Devlin’s strikingly simple set sees a large oval hovering over the stage, evoking iconic imagery of Wembley Stadium, and while there’s very little ball kicking, Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbon’s sound design provides the roar of the crowd and the anthems required to stoke up a feeling of national pride.
Joseph Fiennes is quietly convincing as Southgate, pushing down feelings from the past to allow genuine concern to shine through. All of the cast are essentially imitating their real life counterparts; Gunnar Cauthery is particularly convincing as Gary Lineker, and within the team Darragh Hand, Will Close and Josh Barrow as Rashford, Kane, and Pickford delight the audience with exuberant portrayals.
When the curtain falls it’s a case of ‘they think it’s all over’ but of course this time, it’s not. Outside a West End theatre, Southgate remains in the job and shows no signs of going anytime soon. So, although Graham doesn’t have a true ending to this story, Dear England stands proud as a joyful portrayal of the game, and a heartfelt celebration of teamwork. Even more surprising is that it had this Scotsman cheering on the England team all the way through.