Last Updated on 21st June 2023
Paul T Davies reviews James Graham’s play Dear England now playing at the National Theatre.
20 June 2023
Full disclosure- I’m Welsh and have no interest in football. So, would a play about Gareth Southgate and his quiet regeneration of the England squad entertain and engage me? Well, yes, because it’s fantastically staged and has many beautiful moments of the beautiful game, and Rupert Goold’s electrifying direction fills the massive Oliver auditorium with energy. It’s another triumphant design by Es Devlin, a neon oval shape that hints at big stadiums, that projects lots of information for those unfamiliar with games and scores, and there is a locker room fluidity. Best of all is the physicality, excellent movement work by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf, the matches brought to testosterone-fuelled life. But James Graham’s play is not just about football, it’s about the state of the nation, and here the links between sport and politics become undone a little, overall, the play lacks great depth.
Centre of it all is Joseph Fiennes’s uncanny metamorphosis into Gareth Southgate, capturing the mannerisms and beliefs of the man, if nothing else you leave the auditorium with huge respect for him. Haunted by his missed penalty at the 96 Euros, he struggles to step out of the shadow of it, and team psychologist Pippa Grange, an assured performance by Gina McKee, encourages him to do so. However, it only scratches the surface, and we never really get a deep sense of his trauma, in fact the play does tend to dwell too much on the performance coaching, the team being encouraged to write journals etc.
Will Close is show-stealing as Harry Kane, (whose voice even I recognise from Radio 4’s Dead Ringers), hilarious in every aspect, only showing the vulnerability of the man in the second half. It is, indeed, in the second half the play begins to become interesting, tackling racism and the appalling behaviour of some so-called fans, but the lampooning of successive Prime Ministers gives it a Spitting Image feel, and I’m not sure the fortunes of the nation are tied to the England team, even though Southgate was appointed the year of the Brexit referendum. It’s also notable that every foreigner in the play is a stereotype.
The play goes deep into extra time, and could do with some judicious cutting, and it lacks the political bite of Graham’s earlier work such as Labour of Love and Ink, and the question of what it means to be English is never fully resolved. The play works best when Graham is enjoying himself in his writing, the jokes land and there is genuine tension in those penalty shoot outs! It’s an enjoyable, beautifully staged evening, and if it brings to the theatre an even more diverse audience, it will do its job well.
Until 11 August 2023 at National Theatre