Review: The Red Lion, National Theatre

“I was never so loved, nor loved this life so strong”

Patrick Marber’s first new play in over a decade comes after a period of writer’s block, so it is perhaps little surprise that his subject matter in The Red Lion is one that is close to his heart and something with which he is intimately associated. Marber is a director of Lewes FC, currently in the Isthmian League Premier Division, and it is this world of non-league football into which he delves over a considerable 2 hours 20 minutes.

A great play would tease out such sub-themes as the state of modern cross-generational masculinity and what place faith has in such a capitalist world but Marber never really tempers his love for the beautiful game sufficiently to allow this to happen. So instead we get a very good play which lives and breathes football with its nostalgic yearning for the fair play and decency and corruption-free ethos of years gone by (if indeed they ever existed).

This he does through placing three men in a grotty changing room (a brilliant piece of design from Anthony Ward) over three acts – former star player Yates who is now the general dogsbody, wheeler-dealer manager Kidd looking for any opportunity to go on the take and Jordan, a new young player who makes everyone’s eyes light up. And so an almighty tussle begins, passion versus profit, allegiance versus ambition, as the fight for Jordan’s future replicates the arguments for the game’s very soul.

In these FIFA-blighted times, it’s a cannily prescient piece of writing but Ian Rickson’s production is also one which fails to really take into account those for whom Saturday afternoons aren’t spend on terraces and touchlines. There’s some blisteringly funny lines though and a reflective melancholy that sings with a near-suffocating love, particularly in Peter Wight’s deeply evocative performance as the browbeaten Yates. 

Danny Mays delivers another of his effortful turns as the slippery Kidd, superficially impressive but somehow never truly involving, but Calvin Demba does much more with less as Jordan, no innocent as we soon find out he’s harbouring his own secrets. And there’s no doubting the truth of the corrosive effect that the promise of big money has had on football on all rungs of the ladder, Marber has relocated his voice speaking of which he knows, now he’s just got to think about those who don’t. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th September

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