Draw a Venn Diagram. Put ‘Football Fans’ on one side. On the other, put ‘National Theatre Audience’.
The pacy moments of comedy make this far from a waste of time
How big is the intersection?
The answer will give you the size of the audience for James Graham’s new play Dear England, now at the National Theatre’s Olivier.
Spanning the last decade, Dear England charts Gareth Southgate’s time, so far, as England football manager. The ‘so far’ is important.
Southgate is still England manager today. His story is not yet complete. And so, this feels a little premature, incomplete. It hasn’t reached a denouement, there’s no dramatic resolution, no valuable lessons learnt.
It is just a retelling of (very) recent history. A summary of the last decade of tabloid headlines: not with the benefit of hindsight, but simply laid out in front of you once more. It’s a reminder of Brexit, Covid, Tory leadership. And of some football matches that England didn’t win.
A Southgate summary
For those with short memories, or less than a passing interest in the ups and downs of our national squad, a quick Southgate summary.
As an England player himself, Gareth Southgate is best – only? – known for missing the penalty that cost England the semi-final against Germany in the 1996 Euros. He was vilified by the public.
Twenty years later, whilst managing the England Under-21s, he became manager of England’s national team after Sam Allardyce’s scandal-prompted ‘mutually agreed resignation’.
The same year, Theresa May became Prime Minister.
At first, fans weren’t sure about Southgate’s appointment. Then England got to the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup. Fans voted Southgate BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. We got Covid.
England played to empty stadiums and reached the final of Euro 2020 (in 2021). They lost.
That’s pretty much the plot of Dear England.
A rollcall of tactics
The reason for making this a play for the National Theatre is largely down to Southgate’s managerial approach. Less anger, more love. Less aggression, more support.
Many of the things that make Southgate a different kind of manager are included here. But little is examined in any depth. They appear like a rollcall of tactics: as though prefixed by an ‘e.g.,’, they are quickly acknowledged, then fizzle away.
He brings in psychologist Pippa Grange as Head of People and Team Development. She asks the team to do journalling. After a while, she resigns.
He encourages the team to post selfies on Insta. He offers support to fight back against racist chants. He touches on the changing nature of what it means to be English.
He announces that the team will eat at the same time as the staff. He acknowledges that the women’s team shouldn’t have to wait until the men finish training.
He decides to wear a waistcoat. He decides later to change the waistcoat to a polo shirt.
All very worthy. Well, maybe not the fashion choices. Like reading a list of bullet points on a great CV. Unlike a CV, we don’t get to discover more information in the interview.
Historical context is given by brief cameos that similarly speed on and off stage.
Theresa May and Boris Johnson appear foolish. Previous England managers, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Cappello and Graham Taylor deliver punchlines. Gary Lineker and Matt LeTissier commentate.
It’s like a race against the final whistle. We see lots of chances being set-up, but each lacks any follow-through.
Time does slow down for football-related reconstructions.
So, we get the biogs of each player as Southgate announces them for his first team. (As a non-follower, I was a little confused why there are only 10 players here.) A sudden information overload, this goes over your head if you don’t already have prior knowledge. Though it’s unimportant.
And we see every penalty being taken in the 2018 World Cup. No real balls but in what feels like real time. For football fans, the reliving of this memory may bring back all the excitement of the moment. Closing act one, it receives rapturous applause that feels as though for the goal scoring.
But if you weren’t there, you don’t know.
Great comic turns
With clipped beard and slicked back hair, Joseph Fiennes looks uncannily like Gareth Southgate. He speaks with a defined precision and gives stress to consonants, showing why the player was given the nickname ‘Nord’ by his Crystal Palace teammates. (It reminded them of the vocal delivery of Denis Norden.)
As Pippa Grange, Gina McKee has little to do. Between reluctantly joining and resignedly leaving, she delivers a couple of speeches about supporting each other and is the butt of some jokes about being ‘touchy-feely’.
There are some great comic turns from the supporting, largely multi-playing, cast. Sean Gilder has a lot of fun playing various managers as well as Northern Irish good bloke, Physio Phil. And Gunnar Cauthery recalls Jon Culshaw with his punchline heavy Lineker, Johnson, Eriksson, and Rooney.
Fine young cast
What makes this eminently watchable though is the fine young cast playing the fresh young team. I can’t speak for their interpretations as impressions – though the audience reaction to the stalled, slow delivery given to Harry Kane by Will Close makes me think he got it on the button.
Across the board, the actors give absolute commitment to their roles as young men suddenly thrust on to the world stage. They are completely believable as individuals forced to work together. Not one of them did I think for a second wasn’t a championship footballer.
Watching the team here made me want to find out about the real players, with hope that the erudite, likeable personalities are drawn from reality.
Best seen with fans
If you’re as likely to be at a Chekov as you are at a Cup Final, then Dear England is for you. I’m not sure just how much the two sides of the Venn diagram overlap but it’s probably more than one may at first think.
But it is certainly one for the football fans. Glance through the reviews and I would happily bet that the higher the star-rating, the more fervent the fandom.
For those with only a passing interest in the glorious game, there’s still plenty to appreciate. The consistently strong performances, Es Devlin’s grand stadium like design, and the pacy moments of comedy make this far from a waste of time.
But, like an England final, this is best seen with your proper fan friends. Their enthusiasm will exponentially increase your own enjoyment.