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17 June 2015

In Patrick Marber’s football play The Red Lion, you can almost smell the showers

Patrick Marber returns to the National Theatre with a meticulous portrait of three men’s Premiership ambitions.

By Mark Lawson

The Red Lion
National Theatre, SE1

A startling paragraph in Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography mentions that his wife, Kathy, wasn’t “best pleased” when he told her that he had just sold their son to another club. Although the former Manchester United gaffer is business-like about the transaction, the story reminds us that football is a rare post-slavery area of human life in which people are literally bought or sold and sometimes, in an increasingly dynastic sport, by their own dads.

In Patrick Marber’s new play The Red Lion, the footballing relationships are quasi-paternal. Johnny Yates, veteran kit-man for a non league side somewhere on the tube route from Euston, has spotted a potential Premiership talent in Jordan, a teenage striker. Competing to be the boy’s mentor is the Lions’  manager, Kidd, a would-be lower league Mourinho who, on the first of the “three saturdays in winter” that Marber dramatises, has just handed Jordan the number 17 substitute shirt meticulously ironed by Yates.

Most shows are wearing their sets lavish at the moment but Anthony Ward’s design here is operatically drab. A changing room of wonky pegs on peeling walls opens onto a (narratively significant) ablutions area where you can almost smell the foot-rot in the showers and the stink in the stalls. When the outside door is opened, it fleetingly reveals the word “Home” and Marber subtly shows that this dismal space has become a refuge for blokes who – for reasons involving aspects of fatherhood, a key theme of the play – have no real home to go to. This is their boardroom (Jordan may, like Mrs Ferguson’s son, be tradable), bedroom, bathroom. All three characters dress and undress, for various story reasons, at least once.

This is Marber’s first play at the National for 14 years – since Howard Katz failed to repeat the appeal of Dealer’s Choice and Closer – and his first anywhere for nine. He’d presumably have liked to get something in production earlier but, in terms of subject, this play really couldn’t have come at a better time. Many commentators on the corruption scandals engulfing the world football body FIFA and its outgoing president Sepp Blatter have invoked the metaphor of the fish rotting from the head down; Marber suggests that dodgy dealing and disfiguring personal ambition may equally infect the foot.

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The dialogue is usually true to the game’s particular vernacular, in which people never say “the club” but always “the football club” and the most hyberbolic tribute that the old lag Yates can pay to Jordan are the three words: “He can play.” In one respect, though, the speech is weirdly imprecise. Yates refers to a historic cup-tie “in the North-East, huge club”, while Kidd bemoans the “horrible club” that sacked him. In reality, it would always be town names or nick-names. Whether this discretion is legal or aesthetic, it removes the geographical territoriality that is such a part of football.

Marber’s dialogue and stage directions also refer to “the dressing room”, which is a theatrical term, rather than the sportingly more normal “changing room.” This may be a sub-conscious attempt to escape the shadow of David Storey’s rugby league classic The Changing Room (1971), which solved the problem of depicting sport on stage by only showing the players before, during and after.

The Red Lion opts for one pre-match and two post-match scenes although uses only three characters rather than Storey’s 22. This 1-1-1 formation means that Marber can’t dramatise the herd dynamics of male games, but he demonstrates great tactical astuteness in getting his three players on and off stage. Footballing literates in the audience will work out early on that two circumstances in which Jordan might plausibly return alone to the changing room are a red card or serious injury, which creates useful tension.

Ian Rickson’s meticulously drilled production benefits from perfect selection for the three male generations represented. Peter Wight shows within a battered older man the almost spiritual nourishment that comes from a ball kicked through mud. Calvin Demba, who even looks like he could play, catches the sudden switches between cockiness and vulnerability common in precocious athletes. Crisply articulating several Mametian rants, Daniel Mays’ slippery, skittery Kidd is, like many managers, half headmaster and half second-hand car dealer. The first new play of Rufus Norris’s National Theatre regime is as rich and rewarding as a FIFA executive.