Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: 'The Red Lion' at Trafalgar Studios, 7th November 2018

The Red Lion reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Football is more dominant now than at any point in history. Millions of people can simultaneously cheer on a match from every corner of the world. Afterwards many retreat to the virtual world of EA's FIFA video games or fiddle with their fantasy leagues. Even if you don't give a shit about the sport, the all-encompassing celebrity of the world's top players ensures that everyone constantly aware of them.

Cultural dominance is lucrative stuff, as anyone that's glanced at the FIFA corruption investigations will know. Get the right tournament in the right place with the right sponsorship deal can lead to dump trucks full of money unloading in your Swiss bank account, a daisy-chain of backhanders: on one end gold-plated Rolls Royces and on the other slave labour in a baking hot Qatari building site.

But all this seems pretty damn distant from the changing rooms of the non-league team that' the subject of Patrick Marber's The Red Lion. Set entirely in a changing room that has seen better days, we follow three men making their way through the unglamorous side of football. They are club manager Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), kit man Yates (John Bowler) and talented young player Jordan (Dean Bone).

Over a (rather appropriate) 90 minutes, we discover what the game means to these men. Each lives and breathes football, finding in its rules, structure and harmony a contrast to the chaos of their personal lives. Yet while each briefly tastes escape, the sport also exacerbates their flaws: resulting in a tangled web of backhanders that's dubbed "playing the angles".

The amounts of money talked about here are pitifully small: players are given cash bungs of £30 to keep them sweet, characters complain that they're struggling to pay the rent and, in my favourite touch, mid-way through the play we notice that Kidd has downgraded his phone from an iPhone to a pay-as-you-go dumbphone. The biggest sum of money spoken of is a £7000 transfer fee, destined to divided out into very small slices to very many people.

Marber's typically rapid-fire dialogue is (as always) a pleasure to absorb, but for my money The Red Lion's true excellence is showing us the tug-of-war between the ideals of the sport and its grubby financial reality. The trio treats moments of footballing skill with religious awe: former player Yates describing the moment he scored in an FA Cup match against a professional team like someone who has been born again; and Kidd and Jordon share the simple ecstasy of a player who can run rings around his opponent.

But all too soon you sense the poison leaching down from up on high. Sepp Blatter and Kidd might be worlds apart but they are also intrinsically connected to one another, coaching their corruption in pragmatism and finding solace in dragging others down with them. If Marber had written a play about top-level FIFA corruption I have no doubt that it'd be good, but it'd lack the pathos of watching otherwise good men scrabble in the mud for their handful of shekels.

So yeah, The Red Lion is a good play. If you're a football fan you'll love it. If you're not (like me) you'll appreciate a taut, lyrical, well produced and performed piece of theatre. This universality is the cherry on top (it is presumably not by chance that we never see anyone kick a football, or even see a ball at all) and makes for a play with a meaty sociological scope.

The Red Lion is at Trafalgar Studios until 2 December. Tickets here.

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