Life & Culture

Dear England Review: They shoot, they score …it’s a winner for England

Joseph Fiennes is bang on target as England manager Gareth Southgate in James Graham's excellently pitched football crowd pleaser


Dear England
National Theatre | ★★★★✩

Before next year’s European Finals in Germany, England manager Gareth Southgate could do worse than take himself and his team to the National Theatre.

Yes, yes, high culture may not be the usual preparation for a team of testosterone-saturated alpha males before competing in a football tournament, but in James Graham’s new play, which stars an uncannily spot-on Joseph Fiennes as the England manager, they will see how
Southgate’s culture revolution improved England as team and even as a country.

As so often, it all comes down to penalties. Particularly the one Southgate missed in the Euro ‘96 finals, a moment scorched into the national consciousness, Southgate’s mind and Graham’s play, which opens with Southgate looking at his younger self as he takes the fateful shot.

Anyone who doubts the beautiful game can be recreated for the stage is largely proved right by Rupert Goold’s production.

Under a huge ring of white light (design Es Devlin) the football games during Southgate’s tenure are conveyed by scenes during which the team rush around the stage like — as one Match of the Day pundit once described a directionless centre forward — a speedboat without a driver.

The action that counts here, however, all happens in the backroom where Southgate sparks a revolution that confronts England’s psychology of denial. Every tournament England competes in is entered into with unrealistic expectations.

Though serial losers they (or “we”, for those in the audience who are fellow long-suffering fans) insist on thinking of themselves/ourselves as rightful winners.

It is a mindset that has been passed down through generations of football fans and players says Southgate, since 1966.

And although Graham doesn’t say it explicitly, it is difficult not to see in this a metaphor for the English post-war psychosis in which the nation’s superiority complex belied national decline.

This is what happens when our finest political playwright turns his attention to football.
You get a state-of-the-nation play, which makes perfect dramatic sense when large parts of the country are well represented by Southgate’s diverse squad.

Anyone who follows the team will enjoy the way such stars as Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, Bukayo Saka, Raheem Stirling and Dele Alli, to name but a few of the 11-strong squad, are represented by the ensemble cast.

As Southgate Fiennes is physically and vocally pitch-perfect as the England manager who has the intelligence to seek out new ideas, such as hiring a sports psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), while still understanding the blood-and-thunder football culture in which he was raised.

Yes, the evening flags at times like an end-of-season international. But it also generates the kind of England fervour rarely seen in the theatre, leaving the audience with hope for the coming Euros that is based on reason and not denial. Come on England!

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