5 July 2023
DEAR ENGLAND (National Theatre, Olivier) Review
Although I grew up watching football on the telly and still watch an occasional game whilst puttering around the house, I wouldn’t call myself a fan by any stretch of imagination. And that’s a fan of football in general, let alone the England’s team specifically. I know who Gareth Southgate is by name, but wouldn’t know if I’d passed him on the street, and I certainly wouldn’t know any of the players by name or by sight.
This was never going to be the play for me, and I gave it a hard miss when the tickets first went on sale. Then I sort of talked myself into it just to see Joseph Fiennes on stage. Once Gina McKee got announced, I thought I’d take a punt and get a ticket after all. As a non-fan, I need not have bothered.
The play is written by James Graham. Having seen a number of his plays, especially those related to real-life events and/or people, however fictionalised, he never struck me as someone who’s after a cheap laugh. It’s difficult to tell how much mockery shown on stage is down to the writing vs. Rupert Goold’s direction. The audience around me loved it and was absolutely in stitches whilst I sat there trying to work out why the play about the English football team includes a mockery of Theresa May’s resignation. However you feel about May, there is time and place for it, and this felt like an exceptionally cheap shot just to get a laugh. There was loads of stuff like that, and i found myself baffled rather than amused by it. If Graham wanted to make some political points, I don’t see how this was the play to do it.
Then we get to all the inside jokes. When each of the players first appeared and started speaking, the audience roared in laughter. The same was true of Fiennes, managers of other teams, etc. I can only infer from context that, not only were most of the actors set up to look like the people they represented, but that all of their traits and speech patterns were exaggerated and stretched into mockery. Here’s the thing: it’s only funny if you know who these people are. Neither the text nor the story are engaging enough, as written, to sustain non-fans in the audience.
Several actors play multiple roles and have quick changes that require assorted bald caps, hair caps, and the like, all of which are extremely sloppy. Bald caps weren’t straight, and the hair caps were sticking away from foreheads making the characters look like Klingons. Come on… If you’re going to do it, do it right or just don’t bother.
Es Devlin’s set is fantastic: it’s deceptively simple, yet extremely versatile. I’m a big fan of her sets in general, but the way this one transforms from a locker room into a stadium is simply magical.
Gina McKee’s character, whilst seemingly crucial to the team’s success in real life, is almost incidental on stage. She has a few interesting lines, but there’s not enough here to let her show off her acting prowess. Joseph Fiennes looks twitchy and uncomfortable. Maybe that’s how Southgate is in real life, I wouldn’t know, but it didn’t look settled. A surprising highlight of the evening turned out to be Josh Barrow (playing Jordan Pickford, the goalie). I neither know nor care how accurate he was in his portrayal, but his charm and enthusiasm were contagious.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who’s not a fan. As for the fans… This is a fictionalised account of the team’s story, so you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt. If nothing else, you are bound to get a good giggle out of it.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£5.