The Red Lion

Patrick Marber
New Wolsey Theatre
New Wolsey, Ipswich

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The Red Lion
Cast of The Red Lion Credit: Will Green photography
Crispin Letts & Alastair Natkeil Credit: Will Green photography

So the New Wolsey Theatre’s autumn season opens with a multi-award-winning play by a writer whose credits include the films Closer and Notes on a Scandal—and starring an actor who played Lee Banks in BBC’s Line of Duty.

If that’s not enough to draw you in, it also has two other terrific cast members and a plot that will resonate whether you are a football fan or not.

Unlike the New Wolsey’s previous forays into plays about the Beautiful Game, this is not a production where you have to know a great deal about the sport itself or be a fan of the local team, although of course if you have ever been involved in non-league sides, either as a supporter or a participant, you will be able to empathise with the locker-room banter and the general set-up.

On a brilliantly designed set by Zoe Hurwitz, we are immediately in the run-down community hall territory of the Red Lions, a semi-professional side that has a proud history and has seen some success in the past but is now hanging on by its fingernails.

Jonny Yates (played with weary worldliness by Crispin Letts ), aka Lege, one-time star of the pitch and whose grandfather founded the team above a pub in the far and distant, is now king of the kit. He still loves the club—it’s his life and soul—but his domain now is the locker-room, where he holds the balance of power between the board and the new, slightly arsey manager, James Kidd, played with wide-boy panache and great comic timing by Alastair Natkiel. He’s also seen better days, and this job is probably his last chance to make a difference.

Into the mix comes new wunderkind of the pitch, Jordon. Olatunji Ayofe has the hardest job on his hands as the character is more multilayered than he first appears. He’s a mixture of young, keen and innocent, confessing to Christian values which make him almost lose the chance to play in the first team due to his unscrupulous morals, through angry young man with a difficult background and a chip on his shoulder to someone who hides a big secret and knows that its revelation will cost him his career.

The drama stays in the locker-room over a number of scenes as both older men try to gain the trust of the younger player in order to fulfil their own ulterior motives, leading to the inevitable demise of all three.

The dialogue is well observed, sharply witted and has much to say about the price of fame and ambition as well as the motivations and the roles of talent vs chance behind life and career choices.

There’s some strong language as you would expect with locker-room banter, but it’s never over-the-top. The discussions are adult, but not in a crude or exploitative way.

It’s billed as 90 mins with no interval, although it stretched to about an hour and three quarters on the night I saw it.

But it's directed with the pace by Douglas Rintoul, who brings out both the humour and the pathos in the script, and there is chemistry between the three well-cast characters that make the scenarios very believable.

An entertaining and thought-provoking evening.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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