The Red Lion Exposes Ugly Side Of The Beautiful Game

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 32 months ago
The Red Lion Exposes Ugly Side Of The Beautiful Game ★★★☆☆ 3

Calvin Demba as Jordan, Peter Wight as Yates, Daniel Mays as Kidd in The Red Lion. Image by Catherine Ashmore.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

For fans who want to get their footie fix in a theatre rather than a stadium during the close season, the West End musical Bend It Like Beckham has now been joined by Patrick Marber’s play The Red Lion at the National Theatre. A much less positive spin on the beautiful game, it is set within the seedy world of bungs, dubious contracts and performance-enhancing drugs in semi-professional, non-league football. This may seem a world away from the glamour of the Premier League or the global corruption scandal engulfing Fifa, but for those concerned there is just as much at stake both on and off the field.

The taut three-hander hinges on a series of dressing-room encounters at a small football club with a proud history stretching back to 1892. Ambitious manager Kidd is having some success with his team on the pitch but is worried about his best players being poached by a bigger club up the road. He also has his own financial and domestic problems. Then there's ageing ex-pro Yates, once a star player with the club before relegation failure as its manager broke his life up. He's now the paternal kit man who still wants to have an influence. A young, highly talented player called Jordan becomes the focus for their power struggle, but he has issues with authority, not to mention a dodgy left knee.

Marber’s dark comedy shows how the dreams that originally inspired these people to get involved with football have been tarnished by practical pressures and moral compromise. It's set against a background of insidious commercialisation of the game that threatens its soul. Like his first play Dealer’s Choice, which puts a group of men playing poker under the spotlight, The Red Lion explores flawed masculine behaviour in another very competitive setting, examining issues of rivalry, loyalty and integrity, though it probably will not have as wide an appeal to those not especially interested in the game.

Ian Rickson’s direction maintains the tension, especially in the showdown in the second act, while Anthony Ward’s impressively detailed design of a run-down changing room with a tatty red lion emblem on the wall adds authenticity to the drama. Daniel Mays brings his usual kinetic energy to the role of Kidd, a nattily-dressed gaffer with a slick motivational patter who cuts ethical corners. He is well contrasted by Peter Wight’s more old-fashioned, taciturn Yates, torn by a conflict of loyalties. And as Jordan, Calvin Demba looks the part of a promising athlete dedicated to his career, though he has secrets of his own.

After a break from the theatre of nine years, Marber is on a bit of a roll, with his new version of Turgenev's Three Days in the Country opening next month at the National too, while his most successful play Closer was recently revived at the Donmar Warehouse. The Red Lion isn’t quite in the same league, but though not pitch perfect it has enough dramatic twists and turns to keep you guessing about the outcome till the full-time whistle.

The Red Lion is on at the Dorfman, National Theatre until 30 September. Tickets are £15–£55. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 12 June 2015