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Friday, June 23, 2023

Dear England @ Olivier Theatre... "A fantastically entertaining play. What it means to be English in the early roaring '20s"

Just as the lights were going down I hear a whisper next to me. "I'm not going to like this", says Stuart. "It's about football, isn't it?"
So yes, last night Stuart and I went to see James Graham's new play Dear England at the Olivier Theatre on London's glitzy South Bank.
Short reiew:
Well, I loved it. James Graham hits the back of the net with this absolute corker of a show. Dear England brilliantly draws you in to the drama of sport. And what a stupendously entertaining night out it was.
Long review:
The play beautifully mixes the crisis in England manager Gareth Southgate's own sporting life, the associated radical culture shift that he has engendered in the England team of late, and a state-of-the-nation treatise of what it means to be English in the early roaring '20s. 
For the football indifferent like Stuart, a spot of ignorance to all the background of the piece and of the colourful parade of characters was perhaps no bad thing. For me, I was desperately searching my memory for England knock-out stage results circa 2018!
Graham’s play starts in 2016 with the boss ("call me Gareth, please") being made caretaker manager following the abrupt departure of Sam Allardyce. Actually, that word “caretaker” comes to feel significant, since Southgate is deeply invested in the mental health of his players. He recruits psychologist Pippa Grange to try to help the team address their personal and collective traumas.
Southgate has his own trauma of course. Back in Wembley in 1996 he missed a critical penalty eliminating England from the Euros. 
Grange analyses the England players’ penalty style, how they take them far too quickly out of fear and avoidance. That brutal individual pressure, with your nation’s hopes – and potential recriminations – in the balance, is viscerally dramatised, aided by the penalty spot glowing ominously. (Thrilling lighting design throughout from Jon Clark.)
But the genius of Graham’s piece, and of Rupert Goold’s rip-roaring production, is that it constantly balances a sincere portrait of these real-life figures with rapid-fire humour. It is, hands down, the funniest show you can see in London right now; if you don’t howl at Harry Kane’s brisk summation of the Star Wars trilogy, you’re dead inside.
That comes as part of Southgate’s endeavour to have the players write their own story, rather than feel weighed down by history and by other people’s ridiculously high expectations. The latter is represented by a cross-section of the British public – Deliveroo driver, fish and chip seller, postman, barrister – all caught up in football fever. “I still struggle to forgive him,” sighs a vicar of Southgate and his missed penalty.
A wonderful Joseph Fiennes endearingly captures Southgate’s soft-spoken, self-effacing gentleness, his progressive values and unusual empathy, encapsulated in his open letter from 2021 that gives the play its title. He’s not a natural choice for drama, but Graham cleverly amplifies his personality just enough to hold centre stage.
Southgate's enlightened approach is sharply contrasted with the unreconstructed masculinity of the changing room. Coach Mike Webster (a wry Paul Thornley) is his main foil, sceptical of the new touchy-feely approach and, when the results don’t go their way, quick to accuse Southgate of “softness”.
Although there is an interesting note of ambiguity here. It’s unarguable that Southgate creates a better, more supportive environment for these young men, who then become a more cohesive team as well as impressive role models (there’s a mention of Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign). But that still hasn’t translated into silverware. Or at least – not yet. The story continues on.
Gina McKee brings shrewd intellect and punchy wit to Pippa Grange (she’s the first to make cracks about Southgate’s now-legendary waistcoat), and there are vivid evocations of the players. Will Close is a riot as the adenoidal Kane, but equally provides astonishing catharsis in the second half for Southgate and for us. Josh Barrow supplies peerless physical comedy as eager goalie Jordan Pickford, while Kel Matsena is a passionate Raheem Sterling grappling with the imperial history of the England flag and racist fans. Ebenezer Gyau goes on to steal the show as Bukayo Saka answering said racists.
What does England mean to you? That’s really the big question here. The football team is one of those potent symbols of national identity, along with the BBC or indeed the National Theatre, which is itself looking for a new manager – sorry, artistic director.
Graham also weaves in Brexit and the dismal parade of recent Prime Ministers. In contrast to the divisive nightmare of Brexit, Southgate’s mission is a unifying one. That extends to his respect for the women’s team – who, we’re reminded here in a moment that draws spontaneous cheers and applause, did actually win a trophy.
Es Devlin deserves one too for her truly spectacular design. A giant halo-like ring of light dominates the revolving stage, onto which is beamed handy information like match scores and footage of past games (including the inescapable 1966 win). It also evokes that adrenaline-spiked gladiatorial arena, under the glare of the world’s media, into which the players must step.
The Olivier audience was quite something too. It became a football crowd, people roaring out as their club teams are mentioned, and the matches are genuinely thrilling. The movement, by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf, is an intrinsic part of Goold’s propulsive storytelling: clever miming of practice drills and shots (backed by Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons’s immersive soundscape), and a dramatic change in the team’s body language as they gain in confidence and pride.
Goold makes thoughtful music choices too, from “Bittersweet Symphony” and Gilbert and Sullivan to “Sweet Caroline” and “Vindaloo”. It adds to a production that is accessible in the very best sense of the word, an open invitation whether or not you’re already a fan of sport, or of theatre.
It’s our national story told with heart, humour and headers, and a beautiful celebration of an unlikely hero. Fiennes is definitely man of the match, but this is a joyful, and victorious, team effort.
And Stuart's opinion? As the lights came up, "Yeah, it was good. I enjoyed it." Holy moly!

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