'The Red Lion': Theater Review

The Red Lion Production Still - H 2015
Catherine Ashmore

The Red Lion Production Still - H 2015

Sentimental soccer bromance is pitched squarely at fans but is unlikely to win new converts

The first new stage play from Oscar nominee Patrick Marber in over a decade tackles the topical theme of corruption in football.

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death," said Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool FC. "I can assure them it is much more serious than that." Anybody who agrees with Shankly's most famous quote sits squarely in the target demographic for Patrick Marber's new chamber drama, The Red Lion, a tender love letter to Britain's national sport and an angry attack on its current rotten state. Soccer agnostics, on the other hand, will struggle to engage with this simplistic and sentimental celebration of football as a kind of secular religion.

Riding on a serendipitous tsunami of free publicity, the play arrives just as a massive financial scandal engulfs professional soccer's global governing body, FIFA. Marber's new three-hander is also concerned with corruption and bribery in the game, but at the much more lowly level of English amateur league football, where money is scarce and facilities crumbling.

A sometime actor, director and screenwriter, Marber is still best known for his sexually explicit 1997 drama Closer. Much more conventional in style and structure, The Red Lion is his first original theater piece in over a decade. It breaks a long stretch of writer's block, though Marber continued to work onstage and screen adaptations, earning an Oscar nomination for Notes on a Scandal before getting fired from Fifty Shades of Grey. In recent years he also invested in a community-owned minor league football team, which helped inspire this latest play.

The single location, designed by Anthony Ward, is the authentically shabby, grubby, damp-stained locker room of an amateur soccer club somewhere in southern England. There are only three characters, each representing a different aspect of the beautiful game. Now in his twilight years, Yates (Peter Wight) is a former star player who gave his life to football, suffered a mental breakdown and now serves as volunteer dogsbody for the club. Kidd (Daniel Mays) is the team's current manager, an unscrupulous cockney wiseguy who clearly views his position as a stepping stone towards a bigger and more lucrative career, even if that means playing dirty and making illicit backstage deals. But he loves the game too, in his own obsessive and toxic way.

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Both men are fixated on a new team player, Jordan (Calvin Demba), a morally upstanding young Adonis with potential to be "the new Pele." For Yates, this supernaturally talented novice represents a redemptive reminder of his own lost faith in football as a powerful force for communal good. For Kidd, meanwhile, the boy is a valuable asset to be exploited for career advancement and financial advantage. In their shared need to elevate Jordan into a messianic savior figure, each man neglects to consider that his saintly sheen may be too good to be true.

Divided into two halves, football match style, The Red Lion plods through its overlong opening act as Marber and director Ian Rickson painstakingly plot out a dysfunctional love triangle between three emotionally damaged men. The action here is all verbal and too slow. Almost nothing happens aside from Jordan stripping down to his underpants for a massage, underscoring the comically homoerotic subtext of soccer culture, a potentially rich angle that Marber leaves unexplored.

Peppered with ripe British football slang terms like "tapping up" and "bung," the dialogue is mostly testosterone-heavy back-and-forth banter punctuated by poetic monologues about the sport's quasi-mystical powers. "I was never so loved, nor loved this life so strong," sighs Yates, recalling his glory days on the field. Lyrical stuff, albeit overwrought and pompous in places.

Marber's longstanding kinship with the late Harold Pinter is evident here, especially in the more lively second half, when the uneasy power balance between these three men breaks down into spiky score-settling and bitter back-stabbing. David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross also comes to mind, notably when Kidd snaps into foul-mouthed, fast-talking overdrive as he desperately tries to cajole Jordan into signing up to his Machiavellian schemes. Though essentially the villain of the piece, Mays gives easily the most magnetic performance, bursting with energy and humor. In a more thanklessly earnest role, Wight exudes a soulful, weary melancholy. Demba also shows plenty of promise, but his character feels underwritten and a little schematic.

The Red Lion touches on big themes like masculinity, the hunger for spirituality in a godless world and antique notions of fair play. But at heart it is one long misty-eyed sermon about football's lost golden age of integrity and decency. Given that British soccer has suffered successive corruption scandals for at least 50 years, Marber's rose-tinted nostalgia is a little hard to swallow. Admittedly, the influx of big money over the last three decades has amplified the venality, but it also turned the game into a multi-billion-dollar global industry and major cultural force. A subject now worthy of National Theatre plays, no less.

Without risking spoilers, The Red Lion concludes by hinting that some old-school fans would rather die than live with football in its current debased state. Even on a symbolic level, this feels absurdly melodramatic. Hardcore sports geeks who share Marber's passion may also feel his pain. Everybody else will leave the theater baffled by the spectacle of adult men sobbing and screeching over a blow-up ball, and expecting to be taken seriously. Shankly was wrong. It's just a game. Get over it.

Venue: Dorfman, National Theatre, London (runs through Sept. 30)
Cast: Daniel Mays, Peter Wight, Calvin Demba
Playwright: Patrick Marber
Director: Ian Rickson
Set and costume designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Fight director: Terry King
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Presented by National Theatre