It’s been just two years since Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion was last staged in London, but this new production, directed by Max Roberts at Trafalgar Studios, has seen the writer relegate much of the original material. It’s also had a change of setting, to an unspecified Northern town, although the accents make it sound very much like somewhere near Newcastle, where this version of the play ran before transferring to London.
The Red Lion is a play about the state of the nation as much as it is a play about Football, while there’s occasional references to transfer fees and the blind referee, you don’t need to be an expert in the game to grasp the context of what’s happening.
Here we avoid the heady heights of millionaire players, the kind of football most people will be familiar with, and instead we get a glimpse in to the hidden sanctuary of the non-league dressing room. The club has essentially had its day, and is trying desperately to relive the former glory of its past.
The team’s manager, Kidd, acts as if he’s running Arsenal, not seeming willing to accept the position he’s actually in, ashamed to admit he can no longer afford a mobile phone, except on Pay As You Go, which he says is for “infants and drug dealers”. Long suffering kit-man, Yates, irons the uniforms and gives advice to the young boys who make up the team.
The unexpected arrival of a young star, Jordan, exposes the underhand nature with which the beautiful game is played. All three characters face choices, Jordan says he won’t take a dive or cheat but we soon learn he’s not as moralistic as he purports. Kidd’s behaviour isn’t just over the line, it’s positively off-side, with deals dodgier than his hat.
Much of the inspiration for the play probably came from Marber’s own experience in taking over Lewes FC, and so he’s superbly placed to examine the characters in great detail. There are only three of them, and the only hint of an actual team is the row of uniforms hanging on the back wall of Patrick Connellan’s suitably shabby set.
That does allow for a great deal of examination, and you feel by the end of it, you more or less have the measure of each of them. Although there are aspects where you wonder if you’re getting the full story, and if some vital part of the plot was cut, which would have explained it all.
This play about a non-league team has a premier league cast, in the form of Stephen Tompkinson, Dean Bone and John Bowler. Each of them bring something unique to the piece, the first part is wickedly funny, with Tompkinson driving most of the humour, his Geordie accent seeming to emphasise the comedy aspects.
It soon moves on to a more emotional piece of drama, Dean Bone does a great job of conveying the naivety of Jordan, mixed with the emotional turmoil the character has faced, while John Bowler carves out the figure of a faded man who failed to live up to his own expectations.
Whether you see The Red Lion as a play about the state of Britain, or as a play about Football, you’ll see the deep character study which Marber has undertaken. It’s beautifully structured in the way it cuts from one Saturday to the next, with rip-roaring comedy giving way to a more moving and tender narrative.