Unusually for a new play in London, The Red Lion concerns a topic that is of great interest to a large section of the UK populace. It tells a story that should be told, and it tells it with great wit, warmth, sadness and superlative acting. It’s everything the theatre can be at its best and all too often isn’t.
Anyone interested in writing plays on the state of England should at least consider association football. It is, by some measure, the most popular mass participation sport of the last hundred years. There are 92 professional football clubs in England and Wales, some only a few miles apart, all of which carry committed local support. Average attendances in the Premier League are now higher than at any time since the mid-1950s.
But the Premier League is only the apex of the so-called football pyramid. There are another nine levels below that, comprising three more professional divisions and six semi-professional leagues. This means that there are around 5,300 clubs and over 7,000 teams. All of these clubs have fans, ranging from one man and his dog to the 75,000 that go to Old Trafford every other Saturday.
No other country has anything like this concentration of clubs, or, perhaps, the fierce tribalism that accompanies it. If you want to see joy and grief freely expressed by English people and in large numbers, go to watch football. It is, or certainly was, in the happy phrase of Tony Waddington, who managed Stoke City in the 60s and 70s, ‘the working man’s ballet.’
Yet not much has been written about it by the English. There are noted classics, like Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man and Hunter Davies’ The Glory Game, from the late 60s, and, more recently, Nick Hornby’s Football Fever. But there is nothing to match the rich literature of cricket, boxing or, bizarrely, golf.
Of course, it’s mainly working class often white males that play and watch football, and as we all know they don’t really matter to the high priests of English culture. But it’s a yawning gap in the market, nonetheless.
A yawning gap, that is, which has been at least partially filled by Patrick Marber’s sparkling, funny compassionate and important three-hander The Red Lion, which has opened for a month long run at The Trafalgar Studios after a sold out run at the Live Theatre, Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Red Lion is the name of a fictional non-league football club in the North-East and is a member of the Northern League – which isn’t fictional and is the second oldest league in the world. This is a world far removed from the megabucks of the Premier League. Clubs struggle to get by, they play on muddy pitches in front of a few hundred hardy souls, hoping for a big payday should they manage to get through to the third round of the FA Cup and draw a big name. Yet, to a football man, it’s also a more authentic place than the glitzy overhyped Premier League.
The audience takes its seats to see on stage a man in his 60s, pot-bellied and bearded, meticulously, lovingly ironing shirts while stretching a long-injured knee in the squalid little dressing room of The Red Lion. We can hear the thud of a football being kicked on the pitch outside. This is John Yates (John Bowler), aka ‘The Legend’ or simply ‘Leg’, The Red Lion’s kit man. But he’s more than the kit man: he’s the heart of the club, its conscience and its guiding light. For Yates, the club is his family. It has taken the place of his real family when that failed him. This is the story for many men. They can cope with the football world, but not that beyond it.
Yates works for Jim Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), the team’s manager, who’s a different kettle of fish. Equally dysfunctional in the usual sense of the word, he has little of Yates’s belief in the purity of the game. He’s a swaggering, wise-cracking, wild-eyed loose cannon, passionate about winning and not averse to taking back-handers. There’s more than a passing resemblance to the late, brilliant Brian Clough, who also spoke in fluent, pithy and intoxicating torrents of words.
In between this pair comes the kid, Jordan (Dean Bone), a lad of mesmerising ability with a football. He does things with a football that most people in this forgotten corner of the football world can only dream of. He’s naïve and moral too. Yates and Kidd fight a battle for his future. To Yates, the fact that he can play and brightens the world of those who watch is enough; for Kidd, he’s a means to financial advancement and the way out of The Red Lion.
This is battle for Jordan’s soul, but also the soul of the club and in microcosm, as Marber understands, the battle for the soul of English football. A game which has done so much to enrich the lives of so many has, almost overnight, been taken from the communities from which it sprung and been replaced by a glossy money-making machine with no local identity.
This is a battle which has been lost, and it’s being lost again here, in the non-league where £7000 is a lot of money for which men will lie and cheat. Football is, says Yates, “a collusion of souls willing it to be important and so making it important” but Kidd knows “nothing can stop money.”
It’s a brilliant script with Marber’s trademark dazzling pyrotechnics, but written by someone who understands and loves this masculine world in which tenderness is expressed not for other people but for a game. He says in the programme notes that he became, almost to his surprise, a director of Lewes FC when his local Conference side were threatened with extinction. He knows what it is to feel this way because he does.
It’s a good idea to set this story in the North East. Geordies like to claim that the North East is most football mad of any region of the UK, its fans the most passionate. Scousers and Mancunians will doubtless disagree, but it’s true that the non-league scene is particularly healthy in this part of the world. The accent too enriches the soaring lyricism of the script as well as the frequent obscenities.
It’s a very simple set, comprising a massage table, a couple of benches, a white board with tactical dispositions and a row of pegs on which hang football shirts. It’s well adapted to the pint sized stage of Studio Two in the Trafalgar Studios, and the 95 minutes (a full game plus injury time) zips along without intermission. It’s a good job, because you don’t want to tear your eyes away from these three men and their struggles.
They execute Marber’s dialogue beautifully, without exception. There isn’t a note missed. Bowler as the Leg staggers around like a wounded animal, recalling his fleeting days of playing glory and hoping against hope that game will redeem his shattered life. Recently graduated Dean Bone as Jordan gives a startlingly mature performance of touching vulnerability; he’s another refugee from a chaotic home life. If there’s any justice, Bone has a promising future in this business.
But particular praise goes to Stephen Tompkinson, who as Jim Kidd delivers a tragic-comic tour de force. It’s an amazing performance, which surely cannot be bettered anywhere in the West End right now. Marber has delivered a symphony of a script, and Tompkinson, as first violin, wrings every last colour and shade from the score. It’s both hilarious and heart-breaking.
As the lights faded, and sadness reigned, I noted stifled snuffling from the seats alongside. This play about a game has the power to move an audience to tears.