Review: Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre

As much about feelings as football, Dear England makes a highly successful big game transfer into the West End at the Prince Edward Theatre

“My goals… apart from scoring goals…”

If there are indeed three lions on a shirt, theatrical or otherwise, then one of them is surely James Graham (Caryl Churchill and Tom Wells would complete my set). His extraordinary run of success (Best of Enemies and Quiz on stage, Sherwood and Quiz on screen, to name but a few) continues with this West End transfer of Dear England which took the National Theatre by storm in the summer and now becomes the first play in decades to take up residence at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Despite appearances, Dear England isn’t really just about football. It may follow Gareth Southgate’s appointment as a manager of the England men’s football team and his attempts to enact a huge culture shift in order to get them closer to that long-elusive silverware. But the questions that it asks speak to society at large, embracing a deeper understanding of mental health than Southgate himself experienced after his own experiences at the penalty spot in 1996.

So as Joseph Fiennes’ eerily effective but compelling Southgate brings on board a psychologist to examine the collective demons of the England team and look at ways of shaking them off (a charismatic Dervla Kirwan subbing in for Gina McKee from the original cast), so too are the nation’s emotions being recalibrated to bring down the temperature somewhat, to maybe even reduce the histrionics and hooliganism that have accompanied previous defeats at major events.

For all the weightiness that this suggests, Graham and director Rupert Goold manage to layer in a huge amount of humour, making this highly entertaining and hugely uplifting, even at those moments when the ball continues to refuse to hit the back of the net. Will Close takes us on an ingenious arc for Harry Kane, adorable dorkiness slowly gaining gravitas as he takes the captain’s armband; Josh Barrow’s Jordan Pickford is hilariously energetic; the waistcoat comes in for some stick as do numerous politicians trying their luck.

The positioning of the focus this way does mean some pretty weighty issues have to make do with a cursory mention – Marcus Rashford’s move into activism, the pandemic, the success of the Lionesses and the general treatment of women’s football in this country, the controversies about the Qatar World Cup, plus the collective decision to take the knee. These are at least acknowledged though and the vituperative racism that erupted post-Euros 2020 is powerfully evoked, not least in emotive work from Kel Matsena’s Raheem Sterling and Denzel Baidoo’s Bukayo Saka.

Throw in extraordinary design work from Es Devlin, combining with Ash J Woodward’s video design to produce something thrillingly contemporary and superlative movement from Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf who suggest so much matchplay without a single ball whilst emphasising the growing importance of the ensemble, and this is just a cracking piece of epic theatre which slots perfectly into these grand surroundings.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Dear England is booking at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13th January

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