'Dear England' review – James Graham's football drama is an absolute winner
Read our five-star review of Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate, now in performances at the Prince Edward Theatre to 13 January.
During the 2018 World Cup, social media and the press were abuzz as to how Gareth Southgate was so handsome in his waistcoat and behaved like such a gentleman. For someone who feels familial loyalty to Arsenal but had never cared for England, it felt like a turning point – a manager guided by his humanity rather than his ego, and a team that worked together, listened to experts and took their mission seriously. In short, it was a microcosm for everything the Government wasn’t.
Transferring from the National to the Prince Edward Theatre, James Graham’s multi-faceted play Dear England, in Rupert Goold’s tremendous production, has the sweep and crowd-pleasing energy of a musical; it’s both populist and deeply thoughtful, and told with such warmth and wit that football fanatics and sceptics alike will probably be willing to die for Southgate and his team by the end.
Southgate was a renowned defender but never had the celebrity status of a David Beckham. His career is defined to many by the way he missed a penalty at the final of Euro 96 at Wembley (he put his hand up to take it because no one else did).
Joseph Fiennes’s uncanny performance is so lovably awkward and keen to please (he brings muffins from Gail’s to his first meeting with his staff); he’s slightly in his own world and trapped within himself, traumatised for over 20 years about one kick. He has visions of “a happier, more confident England” in which he didn’t miss – what no one has ever said to him is that the real problem is the public being unable to deal with losing.
Graham doesn’t depict Southgate as a saint or a genius; he isn’t an intellectual but he has intellect. He sets out his plan for the team in the form of a three-act story: Shakespeare results in blank faces but Star Wars makes them light up. The amount of pressure put on these young men (the youngest are only 18) is staggering, even if they are paid a fortune by their clubs.
Es Devlin’s luminous oval frame evoking the Wembley arch dominates the stage, and movement directors Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf provide fluid and at times balletic movement that’s some of the best non-traditional choreography I’ve ever seen.
The ensemble play a cross-section of society and public figures who all think they could do a better job. Southgate’s style is mocked as “soft” and “woke” by old-school coach Mike Webster (Paul Thornley) and the media and football traditionalists (including former England player-turned-GB News regular Matt Le Tissier), and a gruesome procession of prime ministers take their turns (Theresa May can’t handle the revolving stage at all).
At the centre of the play is male mental health (this week, there have been ugly reports about Jadon Sancho, who missed one of the penalties against Italy, being isolated at Manchester United) and dealing with expectations, in sport and society as a whole. Under Southgate’s regime, psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan) introduces journalling, group therapy and thinking about what all the symbols and the mythologisation of 1966 mean.
There are never 11 players on the pitch (sorry, stage), which is surely symbolic: the team is always a work in progress. It’s hard to choose favourites but Josh Barrow provides excellent physical comedy as Jordan Pickford, the goalkeeper who tries to appear tough; Denzel Baidoo is endearing as Twix-sneaking, Bible-reading Bukayo Saka, the baby of the team; and Lewis Shepherd has some powerful moments as the troubled Delle Alli.
Will Close is great value as lovably monotonous captain Harry Kane, whose response to being congratulated for a hat trick is, “Yeah. It’s nice.” He’ll never be an orator but there is a real growth in gravitas, even/especially when leading the team in dad dancing. And, when practising dreaded penalty kicks, Southgate telling him to “have a moment” with Pickford as he hands over the ball is priceless.
If Graham’s imaginings of what goes on in England’s training sessions are idealised, it doesn’t make the play any less effective. Who knows if Euro 24 will yield silverware, but it’s unlikely that this play will go away empty-handed come awards time.
Photo credit: Dear England. (Photo by Marc Brenner)
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