National Theatre (venue)
19 October 2023 (released)
21 October 2023
After its triumphant run at the National Theatre earlier this year, the good news for Dear England is that: it isn’t all over, this still has legs and there will be even more cheering from the stalls.
In the fiery battle of theatre v audience, this is a play where everyone is a winner. James Graham is writing about football but, through the lens of Gareth Southgate’s individual travails as a player and manager and those of the England men’s football team from Euro 1996 to the last few international competitions, he is more subtly writing about the human condition. He asks the knotty question at the heart of every team and every fan: why do we put ourselves through this psychological torment every time knowing that there can be only one victor at the end?
As superbly played by Joseph Fiennes, Southgate is never going to possess the most magnetic of personalities but his personal journey is to be admired. His short-lived predecessor Sam Allardyce had bluster to spare and a 100% win record as England manager unlikely to be equalled anytime soon. Southgate is cut from a very different cloth and it is this that Graham digs into.
We watch as he goes from being appointed as an interim after Allardyce is forced to resign to taking on the position full-time, always with the trauma of his crucial missed penalty in 1996 hanging over him. In a savvy manoeuvre, he appoints psychologist Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan taking over from Gina McKee in the original run). Together with the squad, they explore the underlying fears and thoughts which are holding back the players on the pitch. Southgate’s brave stance over racism is shown here as the whole team take the knee in recognition of the hostile treatment meted out to the black players.
Much of the success of Dear England is down to director Rupert Goold’s decision to focus attention on the humanity of the story rather than the better known events which act as milestones on the way to a rousing finale. A dawdling first half gathers pace after the interval with Will Close’s Harry Kane and Gunnar Cauthery’s Gary Linekar providing chuckles and bon mots along the way.
Even for those who think of football as anything but a beautiful game, there’s plenty to admire in this tale of success over adversity.
Dear England continues until 13 January 2024.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner