James Graham deploys his magic touch once again in the entertaining and exultant Dear England at the National Theatre
“We’re not going to win this World Cup”
Early on in Dear England, there’s a slight sense that those not inclined towards the world of football might get lost as a parade of former managers and players are presented onstage and those that know who they are have a right good laugh. But we’re soon caught up as for the present players featured here, ie the important ones (sorry Sam Allardyce), they’re all introduced with their names on screen to help the uninitiated.
Though James Graham’s new play may be based in the world of football, tracking the arrival of Gareth Southgate as manager of the England football team, it is naturally about so much more. He delves deep into questions of national identity and modern masculinity and how the two intersect so problematically when it comes to the taking of penalties in major events, diagnosing the unreasonably high expectations that the men’s team always seem to carry.
It is also extremely funny. Rupert Goold’s boldly exciting production is framed by Es Devlin’s strikingly modern set design, its bright oval as effective as a stadium arch as a ribbon of full-time scores, and in the broad strokes of the bigger picture here (a series of bureaucrats and politicians get highly satirical portrayals), a vivid sense of community frequently fills the stage, with many of the recognisable theme songs of the England team ringing out.
And at the heart is Joseph Fiennes’ uncanny portrayal of “Gareth from Crawley”, an unassuming figure at the start who grows into the role with the help of Gina McKee’s Pippa Grange, a psychologist determined to get the team to acknowledge the weight of their feelings. About themselves, about each other, about their country and about the society they’re representing. It shouldn’t be this effective but Graham is a master of his craft and it is gripping stuff, not least in the penalty shoot-out against Colombia which closes the first act.
What else is unexpected is the level of characterisation he brings across the team. There’s a real sense of their youth and consequent emotional immaturity given the amount of responsibility thrust on their shoulders and so it’s a delight to see them move en masse to a point of enlightenment if not actual silverware (yet). Will Close’s Harry Kane is chief among them, a hugely funny depiction that deepens into real pathos by the end, the perfect blend of emotion and entertainment.