It’s coming home: The National Theatre brings football to the West End

The National Theatre production of Dear England, about the country’s football team, is the first play at the Prince Edward since 1946. But the play isn’t the only thing back on home turf.

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

The last time Joseph Fiennes was in the West End was in A View from the Bridge in 1995, the same year that a young Gareth Southgate made his debut as a player on the England National Team.

Now, almost 30 years later, Fiennes is making his much-anticipated return to the West End stage playing team manager Southgate in the National Theatre production of Dear England at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Gareth’s return to the team as the manager in 2016 parallels Fiennes’s own journey quite nicely. For one, the actor started his career at age 18 as a dresser at the National Theatre, while as a young player, Gareth cleaned the older players’ boots for the team.

They’ve both made triumphant returns to their origins as leaders. "I think of Gareth and the hardships he went through as a player and how he’s managed to forge and manifest the best part of his potential and character out of that pain," Fiennes says,"and help others and bring this reformation into St. Georges."

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The play opens with a young Southgate centre stage about to take his infamous penalty kick against Germany at the 1996 Euros. Fiennes, as an older Southgate, looks on at the edge of Es Devlin’s rotating, immersive scenic design, and the moment that shaped Southgate becomes the moment that will drive the organisation forward.

"The fact that it was the guy who became emblematic of penalty misses in 1996 who broke a penalty curse in 2018 – the first time England had ever won a penalty shootout in the World Cup – that felt really compelling to me, that personal story against the battle for something more political," says playwright James Graham.

His play centres on the behind-the-scenes development and renaissance that Southgate brought to the team when he joined as manager in 2016, charting the team’s progression through three major tournaments: 2018 World Cup in Russia, Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Graham is famous for reimagining true stories onstage, from Rupert Murdoch’s newsroom in Ink to Tammy Faye Baker in Tammy Faye to American politics in Best of Enemies – all directed by Rupert Goold, who is also at the helm for Dear England.

While researching this production, Graham spent a day at St. Georges Park, the team’s training ground, and spoke with Southgate, the players, and everyone behind the operation in what he describes as a "boyhood dream."

"[Gareth’s] whole thing with England at the moment, with his team and with the nation, is about speaking truth and owning anxieties and owning doubts and having fears," Graham says. "So, he basically said he’s really nervous about the idea of being in a play when he’s still trying to tell the story himself, and yet, because he’s so generous and lovely, he also wanted to help and give me all the access I needed."

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Goold is also a big football fan, and he and Graham began talking about the play in 2019 when they were working on Ink on Broadway. As the story of the team continued to unfold – particularly during the 2020 Euros (in 2021) when the three young players missed their penalties in the final shootout – Goold became convinced that this was a story about camaraderie, leadership, and the crisis of mental health for young people.

"I wanted to try and capture the universality of the emotional experience in football rather than the technical," Goold says of the production.

"This group of players that Gareth got behind are very young, and so we look at young men and the mental health of young men," Goold adds. "Without being clichéd about it, men aren’t great about feelings, and the play celebrates this generation’s ability to do that, but also the rights to do it."

Southgate brought psychologist Dr. Pippa Grange on to the team as the Head of People and Team Development to help with their mental wellbeing – a support system he didn’t have when he was struggling with the backlash of his missed penalty. "He’s come through it, and he doesn’t want to inflict that on other generations of football players," says Dervla Kirwan, who plays Dr. Grange in the play. While Kirwan admits she is not a football fan, she says that working on this production, which she joined for the Prince Edward run, has given her a greater appreciation of the players’ journeys.

"I certainly am more interested because I’ve got a deeper understanding of the pressure that is then placed on their shoulders and I think it’s a lot to ask of very young people," Kirwan says. "It’s a huge honour and privilege to play for your country, but the psychological stress is huge. And I feel uncomfortable with that."

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Denzel Baidoo plays one of those young players, Bukayo Saka. Saka is one of the young players who faced a huge amount of public backlash and vitriol after missing the final penalty kick in the 2020 Euros final. Southgate famously came out in support of Saka – as well as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – after the match.

"I think a lot of people connect to it, connected to his story," Baidoo says. "He doesn’t want to let anyone down. And then when he misses at such a young age, he just feels all of it. Thanks to Southgate feeling the same feelings, he’s able to address all the players… Mental health changes the way you play the game."

Albert Magashi plays Sancho and relates to the athlete’s story of moving beyond a working-class upbringing through performing rather than football. "Art imitates life," he says.

The cast’s dressing rooms feel more like locker rooms, according to Magashi, and they do warm-up stretches before a show as the team does before a game. Magashi says the cast especially love it when Fiennes joins in, joking that the actor "doesn’t know that he’s famous."

"I feed off their energy because I just want to remain young," Fiennes says. "I kid myself that I’m early 20s when I’m with them. But the truth reveals itself when I try kicking a ball with them."

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Fiennes describes Southgate as a "bit of a hero" to him, as he’s discovered him through working on the play, but he just feels like another member of the company onstage and not the leader.

"A big part of where we all start out is the forging of where we end up," Fiennes says, reflecting on his own journey from dresser to star. "And often it can feel frustrating and lonely and endless, but it’s that hardship which makes you when you arrive at a destination – such as here or whether it’s in the role of a manager in terms of Gareth – there must be such a sense of gratitude to arrive in that position."

After all, the story of England and the story of Southgate is still ongoing. Graham started writing the play before the Qatar World Cup, not knowing how the third act of his play would end. And there’s another act coming up with the Euro 2024 next year.

And Dear England is in its second act in the West End with potentially more to come. "I don’t think there’s any full stop," Fiennes says. "There are troughs and valleys. Certainly, there are markers in our lives. It’s never-ending markers."

This story first appeared in the premiere edition of London Theatre Magazine.

Top image credit: Will Close, Joseph Fiennes, Denzel Baidoo, and Albert Magashi. (Photos courtesy of production)

Originally published on

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