The Red Lion

Patrick Marber
Live Theatre
Live Theatre, Newcastle

Stephen Tompkinson, Dean Bone, John Bowler Credit: Keith Pattison
Stephen Tompkinson, Dean Bone Credit: Keith Pattison
John Bowler Credit: Keith Pattison

We’ve all heard that somewhat cynical (but possibly accurate) description of a Premier League football match being “22 millionaires destroying a lawn,” and it’s true that money—and lots of it—seems to be central to top flight football. In non-league or lower league football, however, the emphasis in popular imagination seems to be on the sport, the love of the “beautiful game,” rather than money.

Not according to Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion, a play about just such a club. And he should know, for he was instrumental in preventing his local club, Lewes FC (then playing in the Southern Conference), from being wound up.

The red lion of the play’s title is the badge of a semi-pro team in the Northern League and the play is set in the club’s dressing room on three Saturdays during one season. This conveniently divides the play up into the classical three-act format, although each “act” is quite short, with the play running for about 105 minutes without an interval, and—the first comment on the play of this review—it seemed a lot shorter than that. The time, in fact, flew by.

There are three characters. They are described in the programme as Yates, an old man, Jordan, a young man, and Kidd, somewhere in-between. More significantly, however, Yates is the kit man who’s devoted much of his life to the club, Jordan is a new young and talented player and Kidd is the manager.

More particularly, Yates embodies the ideal of the beautiful game and loyalty to the club, whilst for Kidd the club is a business, like the premiership—just deduct half a dozen or so noughts from the end of all figures. Jordan, who simply wants to play football at the highest level he can, is caught in the middle.

But there’s more: underlying the action is the feeling that the club is actually a microcosm of society at large and Patrick Marber is writing as much about Britain as about this little football club.

It’s a beautifully written play, with language which varies from the foulest of the foul (the phrase “potty-mouth” used in the play is an understatement) to the richly poetic. It’s tightly written, too, with no redundancy or vagueness. The characters are compelling and totally believable from the first whistle. (Well, I had to get one football-related pun in, didn’t I?)

And Marber and director Max Roberts are well served by a cast who truly inhabit their characters. Dean Bone gives the young Jordan an interesting mix of youthful innocence and a knowing determination to achieve what he wants, while John Bowler’s Yates is another interesting combination of idealism mixed with a realistic awareness of others’ self-interest. On the surface, at first sight, he seems ineffectual but there is steel in there.

There’s no subtlety in Stephen Tompkinson’s Kidd, however. That’s not a criticism of the actor’s performance: Kidd is the archetypal post-Thatcher businessman; it’s all about the money; the team’s doing well and heading for promotion and for Kidd that’s good because it means more money, not for any other reason. Tompkinson, in fact, is totally convincing and he achieves the remarkable feat of making us understand the man while hating his guts!

Patrick Connellan’s set is a very convincing team dressing room that could come from almost any era: bare walls, single long bench against one wall with a row of coat hooks above, rough floor—and you know it’s going to be cold in there in spite of the one heating element above the entrance to the showers. I’ve changed in places exactly like that more than fifty years ago (minus the heater).

Max Roberts, Live’s ever-reliable Artistic Director, brings all the strands of play and production together to produce a deeply satisfying and enjoyable evening of theatre.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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