Ah, the beautiful game. I am of course referring to football at this point. A game that can be played by anybody who has a ball. Two people get together, coats come off and become goal posts and the humblest cobbled courtyard is suddenly Wembley Stadium on Cup Final Day. People are born into football and will faithfully follow their favoured team around the world to support them, sharing the players’ highs and lows as if they too were on the pitch. But there is another side to football. A side dominated by money, where titles can be won by the depth of the owner’s pockets. Where players are just resources to be bought and sold on the open market and fans are treated shamefully by teams that have three new strips every year knowing the punters outside will have to buy each one or face the ridicule of their fellows in the stands. These two sides of football come to a head in Patrick Marber’s one-act play The Red Lion currently at the Trafalgar Studios.
A changing room for a North East football team and Kitman – and former legendary player – Yates (John Bowler) is setting up for that day’s match. The club may have financial worries but that doesn’t mean standards will drop so Yates gently ensures all the shirts are pressed and hung on their respective pegs. As he completes the task, he is joined by the club manager, Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), tall, besuited and ready to take his boys to the top. Kidd and Yates represent two differing views of the club. The one relishing the history and spirit whilst the other hungry for promotion and cups. They are however both agreed on one thing and that is the superb ability shown by new player Jordan (Dean Bone) a young man with a past and a passion to play. For both Yates and Kidd, young Jordan represents a way to rescue the ailing club but is he willing to be used in either of the two ways that appear open to him?
Whether you see The Red Lion as a simple football story or as a metaphor for life, in general, doesn’t really matter, just go and see this truly delightful ninety-odd minutes of fantastic theatre. Writer Patrick Marber has brought all his knowledge of being involved in a semi-professional non-league football team to create a very realistic and atmospheric piece. The atmosphere is helped in no small measure by the appearance and smell of Patrick Connellan’s superb changing room set which would not be out of place in virtually any small club.
The three characters that inhabit the set are equally perfect. All three have a love of the game that is palpable to see and hear. And yet, their devotion to football is for markedly different reasons, though interestingly enough everything leads back to their parents. Like so much in real life, parents shape and mould the child that becomes the man. Yates is the old romantic looking backwards to an era in football (and possibly in life) that is long gone. Kidd is the cynical realist eyes firmly fixed forward and Jordan, the naive youngster who just wants to escape life by playing the game he loves – whatever it costs him.
In the intimate atmosphere of Trafalgar 2 there is nowhere for an actor to hide so each performance has to be spot on at all times and there is no doubt that this cast is the finest you will see put together to bring The Red Lion to life. There is a lovely lyricism in the way John Bowler delivers his lines, a sort of poetry that takes the words and enhances them with a North East England accent – still one of the most trusted accents in the UK for call centre users – giving them an almost Shakespearean quality. Then there is Stephen Tompkinson. Loud and brash one minute, declaiming blind referees with perfect hearing one minute, then quietly begging Yates to help him in his schemes the next. This colossus really dominates the stage and it gets to the point when you just aren’t sure whether you believe anything he says as the truth and lies come charging out with equal verve. And finally, there is Dean Bone in whose hands Jordan manages to be both innocent and conniving, gentle and terrifying, naive and just too wise to the world. Put together under Director Max Roberts and The Red Lion works on every level.
I’ve assiduously tried to avoid using footballing metaphors in this review but believe me when it comes to The Red Lion, you will be sick as a parrot if you score an own goal by missing this absolute sitter of a production delivered by a cast straight out of the Premier League.
Review by Terry Eastham
Three generations explore contrasting ideas about loyalty, ambition and what it takes to win in this powerful locker room drama from multi award-winning writer Patrick Marber. A promising young football player arrives at a struggling non-league club and pits the veteran kit man against the ambitious manager who’ll do anything to keep the club and himself afloat.
The Red Lion
Performance Dates Wednesday 1st November – Saturday 2nd December 2017
Cast: Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler, Dean Bone
Director Max Roberts
Designer Patrick Connellan
Producer Live Theatre and Trish Wadley
Location Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY