Brought up in Liverpool, I know how deeply important football is as the English national sport: it’s almost a religion, which can bring communities together or deeply divide them. The great Bill Shankly is quoted as saying “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Admittedly I’m now a lapsed supporter, but that deep engagement and all-consuming passion is something I will always appreciate.
James Graham’s superb play Dear England is a love letter not only to the sport, but to the power it has to affect change across a nation and within individuals. An extraordinarily inspiring and enlightening production, it explores human possibility and positive transformation through football, demonstrating how beautiful relationships can be generated when care is taken.
At the centre of the story is Gareth Southgate, whose missed penalty at the world cup in 1996 left the country angrily grieving a loss, and him a pariah. Many years on, he steps in as caretaker manager for an England team struggling with years of disappointment and failure. With the assistance of psychologist Pippa Grange (played wonderfully by Dervla Kirwan) he draws on his own trauma and asks the team to change their mindset; to commit to a process of reflective self-assessment and mutual care, with impressive results.
It’s really hard to find fault with this production, which captures every amazing element of the football experience, from the vast scale and intimidating presence of Wembley Stadium, made glorious in Ash J Woodward‘s magnificent video projections, to the personal understandings acting as soul food and sustenance, such as Nobby Styles’ hilarious dance of elation.
The top cast are simply a league above, led by the wonderful Joseph Fiennes who captures Southgate’s understated characteristics with endearing charm. He’s strongly supported by a dynamic first 11, totally convincing as young athletic footballers, but also thrillingly impressive in their dramatic physicality. They are superbly choreographed by movement coach Kel Matsena, and all are funny, poignant and outright awesome in turns. It’s hard to pick a favourite amongst the lads, but Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford certainly does some show-stealing, whilst Will Close as Harry Kane brings delightful charisma and irresistible sensitivity to the stage in shedloads.
Rupert Goold’s meticulous direction builds a hugely vibrant energy into the play, taking the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, until the tension of the final penalty shoot-out is almost tangible! The play’s ensemble tableaux are visually exquisite yet gorgeously playful. Meanwhile, Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons’ eclectic sound design supports the emotional complexity of the story beautifully. We delight in choruses of “Vindaloo” but also intricately track the team’s psychological elevation, as their learning process is accompanied by lofty classical music.
This moment of history encompasses a stark and timely reminder of the political power of footballers as role models. The shameful, racist treatment of Rashford, Sancho and Saka when they missed penalties in Euros 2020 is called out – all the more reprehensible when we here understand them as individuals within the national team we love. Kane’s personal strength and integrity wearing a “No Discrimination” armband despite fierce opposition, exemplifies powerful enactment of how active humanity nurtures successful teamwork.
By the end of the evening we’re all on our feet. “They think it’s all over: it is now!” and a comprehensive standing ovation is totally deserved. This is an utterly wonderful, humorous, emotional, intergenerational and uplifting piece of theatre for people who like football, or for people who just want the joy of seeing how toxic behaviours can be changed, to fashion a better world on and off the pitch.
Written by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold
Set design by Es Devlin
Sound design by Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons
Dear England runs at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13 January. Further information and bookings can be found here.