When you step back and think about the journey (hate to use that term) Gareth Southgate and England have been on since his appointment as the senior side’s manager in 2016, it probably is worthy of a West End production.
A lot has happened.
Writer James Graham has thrown himself, full-blooded, into the sizeable themes available: starting with Sam Allardyce's 'entrapment' over a pint of wine as England manager, but also covering racism, mental health, human rights and the psychological aspect of sport at the highest level. The end result is a superb script of two halves.
Other big topics covered include COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, England’s increasingly uncomfortable relationship with its own national flag and the pressures and knock-on effects the beautiful game can have on the young people who happen to be good at it.
That said, the entire show is underpinned by humour and it’s a good 45 minutes before any proper pin-drop drama unfolds on the stage. Until then it’s an all-energy affair with the entire cast rushing and rotating around the impressive, circular stage with vicars, doctors, white van drivers, children, nurses, pensioners, butchers and policemen all bobbing and weaving between the England players and coaches and Southgate played by Joseph Fiennes.
A big hurdle that sport often fails to clear when transitioning from stage to screen is authenticity. Making football look ‘real’ for a camera or an audience has always been a major challenge. Sport and football are so widely watched that anything remotely inauthentic immediately destroys the fourth wall.
Interestingly, a physical football only briefly appears on stage fleetingly. During penalty shootout scenes, players place imaginary balls down with both fists clenched on the spot during the drama of the various shootouts. It’s a subtle, but powerful gesture that emphasises the pressure and tension.
Es Devlin – who has designed set sculptures for Kanye West, the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony and the 2022 Super Bowl – put together a superb set that helps navigate the awkward precipice of authenticity. A suspended oval lighting rig flashes and revolves, morphing into stadium scoreboards and floodlights, it softens during serious scenes and strobes harshly to illustrate the intrusion of paparazzi.
At various stages, the actors playing the England team cleverly and seamlessly roll on individual lockers to transform the space into the inner sanctum of the team dressing room. The use of space is very clever and economical.
Gareth Southgate is the lightning rod of Dear England. Fiennes is rarely off stage, and even when his character has no dialogue your eyes are drawn to him. (He has somehow perfected the art of standing like Southgate).
We’re invited into the manager’s head as he recalls the trauma of his Euro ‘96 penalty. “I know what I did” he tells team psychologist Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan), lamenting the lack of power and conviction he applied to his spot kick in 1996. “What you did!? You mean what happened to you!” Grange corrects.
Fiennes’s depiction of Southgate is worth the admission alone. A pitch perfect portrayal. The England bosses’ calm, geeky dignity is ever present. Close your eyes and his gentle, measured Southgate RP makes it feel like he's actually in the room.
As for his squad, they start the play as giggling school boys and end as mature adults, hardened and wisened by the stress, pressure and scrutiny that comes with being a full England international.
Their characters come to life in the second half of the play. They start showcasing their personalities, reminding the audience that they are more than just the legacy numbers they repeat on stage like army privates. They are humans.
Kane (Will Close) is the silent leader, Sterling (Kel Matsena) the hot-headed, Marcus Rashford (Darragh Hand) is the good natured, sensitive soul. Jordan Pickford (Josh Barrow) is daft as a brush, pure energy but also innocent and half steals the show with this antics and mannerisms.
There are caricature cameos from characters playing Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Gary Lineker and Fabio Capello and at no point does the play drag.
There’s a great soundtrack to enjoy featuring Stormzy, The Jam, Chumbawamba and Robbie Williams’ guilty pleasure track Let Me Entertain You. There’s no Baddiel and Skinner though, that only plays after the curtain comes down, serenading the audience out of the theatre.
There’s goosebump moments when England bury their penalty hoodoo vs Colombia and football anoraks will find it hard to poke holes in the overall look of the play, it’s clearly made by football people with an eye for detail.
All the kits are correct, up-to-date, printed, badged and original. Even the coaching staff’s tracksuits are of the correct eras from 2015 to 2022, with Southgate’s waistcoat appearing during the Russia scenes, of course.
The whole production is very real and entertaining. Southgate's England is an inspirational and emotional tale that might still get its happy ending in Germany this summer.
Dear England by James Graham, Directed by Rupert Goold is playing at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13 January 2024
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