19th September, 2015
This isn’t a church; it’s a ‘business!
How timely is this production in the light of the attributed corruption of the FIFA scandal! We know how elite football operates these days. ‘Red Lion’ forces us to reassess the beautiful game through the backstage politics of the game and the darker side of England’s most popular sport.
Partick Marber’s play inhabits Anthony Ward’s plausible set – a grimy changing room of a struggling semi-professional club who have been on a recent winning streak but have just had their best player poached by a rival team. Ironically, the club’s pitch is located over a plague pit – a perfect verbal playground for betrayal. Here we have three of life’s male casualties who find support and stability in the beleaguered club and each other: the unscrupulous, motor-mouthed manager, Kidd (Daniel Mays) is excited about a talented new recruit, Jordan (Calvin Demba) who wants to play for the team. The kit man and ex-Manager, Yates (Peter Wight) enthuses, too, but has a fatherly concern for Jordan and wants to make sure he is nurtured properly. All wrestle over the future of the club.
The curtain rises to reveal an overweight elderly man lovingly strapping an ironing board to the players’ rickety treatment table and caressingly, he irons the sparkling clean team shirts that look out of place in the surroundings. The team uniforms are hung out but we never see the rest of the team. With the entry of Kidd and later, Jordan, we are ambushed yet entertained by sharp witted, pacy and muscular dialogue.
The three acting performances are superb. Daniel Mays plays the volatile club manager, Kidd, juggling debts and a troubled family life; an unpredictable Jose Mourinho type, who is willing to sell Jordan to make a profit.
Peter Wight’s performance as Yates is a tender one, exhibiting the vulnerability arising from being side-lined from club manager as the kit-man for failing to be suitably ruthless and costing the club a demotion. Kidd and Yates stake out their claims on the Jordan’s future, and the power plays start to develop between these three men as they wrestle to get their way – a battle between romantic ideals and profit. So we start to question who really is acting in the young boy’s best interests.
Jordan’s character wrestles with demons of his own. Calvin Demba delivers a perfectly balanced punchy but troubled role. However, his character is flawed as we are supposed to believe that despite his criminal past, he is a religious boy who has notions of fair play and can’t understand the underhand Machiavellianism of maverick management
The play spans three Saturdays. The first half, which takes place before a pivotal match, is slow yet convincing in establishing the male insecurities. Strangely, the second act is far longer than the first culminating in Kidd’s scheming back-firing and all their futures at the club threatened and the board, meanwhile, holds sway, selling off every asset to the highest bidder.
Football has high drama but in the most rigid of forms. In football there is unity of time place and action, as Aristotle recommended for drama. Yes, there is footy tribalism, but you don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy this play. It uses sport as a metaphor for a darker human story: the cruelty, the humour, the love, the expectation and disappointment that pervade the whole of life that grabs us. Though the play doesn’t offer anything new, it is a visceral reminder about needing to belong and that even at grassroots level, football is an endless source of moral contradictions.
Like much of Marber’s work, what it is really about is masculinity, competitiveness, insecurity but it is also funny, sad and haunting and slickly directed by Ian Rickson.
Nationally, Patrick Marber is best known for his 1997 relationship drama ‘Closer’ and helping to create Alan Partridge in ‘On the Hour and The Day Today’. From 2007 to 2012, Marber couldn’t write a word so it’s to our benefit, Marber returns to premiere a fifth play at the National Theatre.
Locally, though, Marber may be better known for being one of Rooks125 – a group of six supporters who worked hard to take the ailing Lewes Football Club into community ownership. So if the big issues in ‘Red Lion’ emerge naturally from the action, it is because Marber is writing about a world he knows intimately.