Review: The Beautiful Game is the Subject in The Red Lion, National Theatre

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Why do we love football – for its beauty or for its gritty fight? Do we trudge to matches every weekend in the hope of seeing prodigious brilliance, or for the tribal passions it brings out in us? And in a world of cynical profiteering and commercialism, can we even still call it The Beautiful Game?

These are the questions posed in The Red Lion, a comic, tragic play about the arrival of a young talent at a semi-professional non-League side. This kid, Jordan (Calvin Demba) could be the real deal. His touch is deft and his talent is obvious – especially to the team’s player-manager Kidd (Daniel Mays) and the kit manager, Yates (Peter Wright) both who have been at the club their whole lives.

But what to do with this kid? Yates wants to keep him – the glory, the moment in the sun this kid could bring to the club, lifts his romantic spirit. But Kidd is more realistic. This kid is too good for them. And what harm would it do to sell the kid on now for a profit to a far bigger club?

THE RED LION national theatre

So Yates and Kidd stake out their claims on the kid’s future, and the power plays start to develop between these three men as they battle to get their way.

Only this play doesn’t really have much of a battle-feel to it. You’d hope the tension would be biting but the play interests without ever really gripping. Simply, the stakes feel too low.

We’re told Kidd’s wife and kids have left him but that doesn’t seem to affect his behaviour much, making the set-up of ‘it’s the last thing he’s got’ feel a little contrived. Similarly, we’re told Yates’ wife and kids are no longer around but again, you just don’t feel that this kid is Yates’ last roll of the dice.

And even the kid himself, if he doesn’t get this contract with the league side, you don’t feel that it’s the end of his world. And it should be. We should feel that these three guys have it all staked on the outcome of this kid’s decision to stay and play, or to move on and up. But we don’t. And as a result, it is hard to get too involved.

THE RED LION national theatre

However, that’s not to say that there isn’t much to recommend this show.

The three acting performances are excellent. Daniel Mays makes for a superb villain as the player-captain of the Club desperate to get this kid on contract so he can make a profit from his sale. He injects comedy as well as a Machiavellian spirit into his performance. Peter Wright also puts in a beautiful performance as the troubled and cowed Yates who remains deeply enwrapped in the romantic spirit of the game, a spirit that may have well long passed us by.

And in a nice touch from Patrick Marber, the binary set-up of Kidd’s devil versus Yates’ angel does become more fluid, more opaque, as we start to question who really is acting in the kid’s best interests.

And Calvin Demba is wonderful as Jordan, the young kid in the middle of this tug-of-war. His kid is punchy but troubled and the balance between the two is perfect.

THE RED LION national theatre

The set design from Anthony Ward is also a highlight. The single setting of the changing rooms of a non-league football side is perfectly reflected in the Dorfman theatre.

So there are some good ingredients in The Red Lion but Director Ian Rickson hasn’t really shaped them into a fascinating story that holds our attention. Maybe that’s a tough ask in a world where there is little we do not already know about the way The Beautiful Game operates.

After all, recently it’s been Raheem Sterling’s transfer saga that has been played out through the media for all the world to see. We know that’s how football operates these days. So it’s hard to see how The Red Lion brings anything new to the subject matter. And for those of us who love footie, this doesn’t really examine anything new or profound.

National Theatre, London to September 30, 2015

Image Credits:

  1. Daniel Mays as Kidd, Peter Wight as Yates in The Red Lion. Image by Catherine Ashmore
  2. Calvin Demba as Jordan, Peter Wight as Yates, Daniel Mays as Kidd in The Red Lion. Image by Catherine Ashmore
  3. Peter Wight as Yates, Daniel Mays as Kidd in The Red Lion. Image by Catherine Ashmore
  4. Daniel Mays as Kidd, Calvin Demba as Jordan in The Red Lion. Image by Catherine Ashmore.

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