The setting of The Red Lion, the changing room of a non-league football club, recalls the 70's Play for Today. At first glance, it seems too parochial for the West End with too esoteric a backdrop. Even the intimate confines of Trafalgar Studios’ smallest space has the whiff of fringe (along with body odour and wet grass). But Patrick Marber’s chamber piece, late of the National Theatre, revived here leaner, retooled and relocated to a North Eastern setting, proves the maxim that any story can be interesting if told with passion and an ear for what we sometimes call real lives.
Concerned with three generations of working-class men and their relationship with the beautiful game (that’s football, not Jenga), the play has emotional scale, a tenderness found in unreconstructed masculinity marking repressed pain. There’s something pressing and timely in the setting, a proxy for the few last unpicked pockets of working-class communities.
Amongst talk of shady backroom deals for semi-professional players, personal integrity and hero worship, the play registers the collateral damage from the ever-present threat of deracination, gentrification and concomitant loss of a shared identity. The tension at its heart, keenly felt, is between the individual and community; between personal gain and the team.
It’s an engrossing night at the theatre built on three extraordinary performances. As Kidd, the slippery club manager, Steven Tompkinson brings pathos and great energy to the man fighting for the soul of an up-and-coming new player with kit man and one-time club legend, Yates (potent turns from Dean Bone and John Bowler respectively). The lyrical dialogue works very hard to build a picture of ambition and anomie at odds with the romanticism that still has a hold on bottom-up associations. It’s not entirely anachronistic either; this is a play the board of non-league Dulwich Hamlet FC, currently fighting with their local council to survive, may wish to take a coach to.
As this is the working class imagined by the affluent middle class, there’s always the threat of cliché. Though based on Marber’s own experiences of buying into his boyhood club, one wonders about the underlying nobility assumed here, the notion of the great unifier. Like literature, football is a touchstone for a wide variety of reactions which Marber, with an eye on the biographical, teases out – childhood sentiment, competitiveness, belonging, escapism. One wonders then, if the unity of purpose sought by the characters, and sold to the audience as something venerable, ever truly existed.
The Red Lion is booking now through 2 December 2018.
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