Does money talk louder than loyalty, trust, and the beautiful game? These are among the many pressing questions raised by Patrick Marber’s accomplished new play, The Red Lion, which couldn’t be better timed considering the recent FIFA scandal.
In this brilliantly crafted drama, loveable team veteran Yates (Peter Wight,) known to the boys as ‘Ledge’ – short for ‘Legend’ – struggles to protect the promising young Jordan (Calvin Demba) from slimy manager Kidd’s manoeuvrings, as Kidd tries to profit from Jordan’s budding talent. The latter, Kidd, is brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Mays, whose wheeling and dealing, cheeky chappy demeanour is at best hilarious and at worst utterly pathetic, insidious and greedy – though this is not to say the other performances fare badly in comparison – rather, it’s safe to say that Ian Rickson’s production is faultless.
The production’s first success is managing to get audiences who may know nothing about football – nor care for that matter (such as this reviewer) – completely on board. Marber tells a story that is incredibly human and humorous, dispelling any cynic’s reservations. Indeed, theatre is comparable to football in many ways, with the best plays sharing many traits with a great match: time pressure, tactical manoeuvring, a high level of skill and craft on the part of the players, and, crucially, a sense of ‘what’s going to happen next?’. The Red Lion is the perfect marriage of all these factors, and while it touches specifically on the politics of football, it also speaks widely about just how easy it is to slide into corruption, all supposedly in the name of something you love.
But it’s not just that Marber has succeeded in making football interesting and accessible to a theatrical audience. That would be to demean the sheer craft of his storytelling and each element of this production which unites to make it brilliant. Against the backdrop of Anthony Ward’s simple and honest design, which locates us in the worn-out changing room of this semi-professional team, Marber fleshes out a world which feels incredibly true, through these three recognisable and fascinating characters. Moreover, Ian Dickinson’s sound design is perfectly pitched, subtly underscoring the moments of urgency and intensity without waving a red flag at them.
This is an undoubtedly brilliant play, the type that demands superlatives – and to be witnessed. With a cast to die for and a journey as painful as it is powerful, it is the National Theatre at its best and bodes well for Rufus Norris’s tenure as artistic director.
The Red Lion is playing at the National Theatre until 30 September. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.