'Dear England' review – James Graham shoots and scores with this stupendously entertaining play

Read our five-star review of Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes, now in performances at the National Theatre through 11 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It’s coming home! James Graham hits the back of the net with this absolute corker of a show – part paean to Gareth Southgate and the radical culture shift that he has engendered as England manager, part stealth state-of-the-nation treatise. For the football indifferent (like me), fear not: though Dear England brilliantly draws on the inherent drama of sport, you don’t need to know the offside rule to have a stupendously entertaining night out.

In fact, a spot of ignorance is no bad thing: it adds to the suspense of watching the team progress through several international tournaments. Although the reverse is true too; while I struggled to recall what happened during the tense conclusion of one particular match, my sport-savvy companion muttered “This still hurts”. That’s testament to the fierce emotional connection we have with our national game.

Graham’s play begins in 2016 with Gareth being made caretaker manager following the abrupt departure of Sam Allardyce. Actually, that word “caretaker” comes to feel significant, since Gareth is deeply invested in the mental health of his players. He recruits psychologist Pippa Grange to try to help the team address their personal and collective traumas.

One of those is Gareth’s own. We see a flashback to the agony of Wembley in 1996: his missed penalty eliminating England from the Euros. Grange analyses the England players’ penalty style, how they take them far too quickly out of fear and avoidance. That brutal individual pressure, with your nation’s hopes – and potential recriminations – in the balance, is viscerally dramatised, aided by the penalty spot glowing ominously. (Thrilling lighting design throughout from Jon Clark.)

But the genius of Graham’s piece, and of Rupert Goold’s rip-roaring production, is that it constantly balances a sincere portrait of these real-life figures with rapid-fire humour. It is, hands down, the funniest show you can see in London right now; if you don’t howl at Harry Kane’s brisk summation of the Star Wars trilogy, you’re dead inside.

That comes as part of Gareth’s endeavour to have the players write their own story, rather than feel weighed down by history and by other people’s ridiculously high expectations. The latter is represented by a cross-section of the British public – Deliveroo driver, fish and chip seller, postman, barrister – all caught up in football fever. “I still struggle to forgive him,” sighs a vicar of Gareth and his missed penalty.

A wonderful Joseph Fiennes endearingly captures Gareth’s soft-spoken, self-effacing gentleness, his progressive values and unusual empathy, encapsulated in his open letter from 2021 that gives the play its title. He’s not a natural choice for drama, but Graham cleverly amplifies his personality just enough to hold centre stage.

Gareth's enlightened approach is sharply contrasted with the unreconstructed masculinity of the changing room. Coach Mike Webster (a wry Paul Thornley) is his main foil, sceptical of the new touchy-feely approach and, when the results don’t go their way, quick to accuse Gareth of “softness”.

Although there is an interesting note of ambiguity here. It’s unarguable that Gareth creates a better, more supportive environment for these young men, who then become a more cohesive team as well as impressive role models (there’s a mention of Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign). But that still hasn’t translated into silverware. Or at least – not yet. The story continues on.

Gina McKee brings shrewd intellect and punchy wit to Pippa Grange (she’s the first to make cracks about Gareth’s now-legendary waistcoat), and there are vivid evocations of the players. Will Close is a riot as the adenoidal Kane, but equally provides astonishing catharsis in the second half for Gareth and for us. Josh Barrow supplies peerless physical comedy as eager goalie Jordan Pickford, while Kel Matsena is a passionate Raheem Sterling, grappling with the imperial history of the England flag and racist fans.

What does England mean to you? That’s really the big question here. The football team is one of those potent symbols of national identity, along with the BBC or indeed the National Theatre, which is itself looking for a new manager – sorry, artistic director.

Graham also weaves in Brexit and the dismal parade of recent Prime Ministers. In contrast to the divisive nightmare of Brexit, Gareth’s mission is a unifying one. That extends to his respect for the women’s team – who, we’re reminded here in a moment that draws spontaneous cheers and applause, did actually win a trophy.

Es Devlin deserves one too for her truly spectacular design. A giant halo-like ring of light dominates the revolving stage, onto which is beamed handy information like match scores and footage of past games (including the inescapable 1966 win). It also evokes that adrenaline-spiked gladiatorial arena, under the glare of the world’s media, into which the players must step.

I’ve never experienced an Olivier audience quite like this one. We become a football crowd, people roaring out as their club teams are mentioned, and the matches are genuinely thrilling. The movement, by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf, is an intrinsic part of Goold’s propulsive storytelling: clever miming of practice drills and shots (backed by Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons’s immersive soundscape), and a dramatic change in the team’s body language as they gain in confidence and pride.

Goold makes thoughtful music choices too, from “Bittersweet Symphony” and Gilbert and Sullivan to “Sweet Caroline” and “Vindaloo”. It adds to a production that is accessible in the very best sense of the word, an open invitation whether or not you’re already a fan of sport, or of theatre.

It’s our national story told with heart, humour and headers, and a beautiful celebration of an unlikely hero. Fiennes is definitely man of the match, but this is a joyful, and victorious, team effort.

Dear England is at the National Theatre through 11 August.

Photo credit: Dear England (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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