This isn’t a show as deeply entrenched in politics as some of James Graham’s other plays, with (perhaps mercifully) only cameo appearances from the likes of Theresa May (Crystal Condie) and Boris Johnson (Gunnar Cauthery, who displays incredible versatility throughout the performance by also appearing as Gary Lineker, Sven-Göran Eriksson and Wayne Rooney, with flawless accents in all cases) and no opposition party politicians at all. There’s a subtle nod to That Referendum, but it mostly focuses on the marked change in strategies and approach in England’s men’s national football team under the stewardship of Gareth Southgate (a highly convincing Joseph Fiennes).
I don’t hate football, as I found myself explaining repeatedly in press night conversations before the show, at the interval, and immediately afterwards, but I don’t actively follow it either, and I wouldn’t have a clue, for instance, when the next transfer window even is, let alone who is likely to leave which clubs and where they would go. But the pivotal role, as this play would have it, of Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), an applied psychologist (inasmuch as her doctorate degree is in Applied Psychology), in ascertaining the mental agility of both players and staff, and then working to strengthen it, isn’t something I recall hearing or reading about, with England’s relative success being largely attributed to Southgate.
I suppose a play set over several years in the history of the England squad can’t cover everything in detail. There’s only a surface-level exploration of, for instance, the decision taken to kneel before a match, or ‘taking the knee’, a position adopted by the England men’s and women’s football teams in their respective European Championships in the summers of 2021 and 2022. The matter of the armband that Harry Kane (Will Close) wanted to wear at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 was dealt with very quickly. There was a moment of frustration for me in the show’s happy ending – it’s common knowledge, and therefore not a spoiler, that ‘the Lionesses’, as they are known, won the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. So why didn’t we get a play about them and how they achieved success?
This is, as the show’s programme makes clear, a fictitious play – it is not possible to know precisely who said what to whom in the many boardroom and changing room discussions (yes, I had to look up what the football world calls a dressing room), and even if it were, as a press statement from Buckingham Palace once said, “recollections may vary”. There was, in the fairly vast Olivier Theatre space, ample room for eleven men plus substitutes, although for some reason there were never more than ten players on stage, which is a pretty fundamental error in a play that portrays key moments in key matches. The show may also be missing a trick in being considerably longer than ninety minutes plus stoppage time.
The play suggests, or rather asserts, that Southgate himself might have contributed to England losing crucial penalty shootouts – Grange thinks a part of his mind is forever rooted in the semi-final of UEFA Euro 1996, when his penalty was saved, and the haunting memories of that moment periodically return. I must therefore stop short of saying the play is a ‘love letter to Gareth Southgate’, even if there are moments in which it very much felt like it. Southgate and Grange’s persistent determination to have deep and meaningful conversations allow for riveting dialogue, with the stilted speech of footballers struggling to form the words to describe complex emotions and responses to on-pitch and off-pitch events surprisingly compelling.
I wasn’t personally invested in the match scenes, although they are portrayed well in a show that unashamedly plays to the gallery. One doesn’t need to have any prior knowledge of the England team to follow proceedings – Fiennes’ Southgate even makes a point of stories having a beginning, middle and end – and there’s enough backstory to get to know the players if you didn’t know them already. A beautiful portrayal of the beautiful game.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It’s time to change the game.
The country that gave the world football has since delivered a painful pattern of loss. Why can’t England’s men win at their own game?
With the worst track record for penalties in the world, Gareth Southgate knows he needs to open his mind and face up to the years of hurt to take team and country back to the promised land.
Until 11 August 2023
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX