The Red Lion*** (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: June 21, 2015 in Theatre

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Patrick Marber’s examination of the state of modern football could hardly be more timely. Several rungs down the ladder from corrupt FIFA officials, the clash between the traditional values of the beautiful game and modern day commercialism can be seen at its starkest. Marber’s three-act, three-hander takes place in the home team changing room of a non-league semi-professional club somewhere in the London area, a club that had been formed in 1892 by a group of enthusiastic players in a room above the Red Lion pub. Inspired by love for the game and loyalty to his club is the kit man (Peter Wight), a player and briefly an unsuccessful manager 20 years and more earlier, whose life went on the skids until he got his present job, doing which he regards as “a privilege”. The current manager (Daniel Mays) is a wide boy, broke and with an eye only on taking a bung; when a promising young player (Calvin Demba) joins the club, the manager’s top priority is to get him under contract so that he can get a cut from a huge transfer fee, but he clashes with the kit man who just wants to nurture him to play for his team. The biggest strength of Ian Rickson’s straightforward one-set production is the compelling performances. Wight is overweight, world-weary, playing extra time and almost defeated; Mays suggests a desperate sleaze bag for whom corruption is a way of life; and Demba develops further the cocky youngster persona with which he showed such promise in The Wolf at the Door at the Royal Court recently. All of these characters are, in their own ways, losers and Marber chooses not to show us examples of the game’s winners, of which there are many; the playwright is not quite the British David Mamet, but his dialogue is sharp and realistic. If the play disappoints slightly, it is only because it is a little too low-key, not igniting often enough; also, it leaves a feeling that its scope could have been more expansive and its approach more incisive. Nonetheless, it gives us a good couple of hours of quality drama.

Performance date: 19 June 2015

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