Walking in, you are in the locker room of a small football club, and as you take your seat at Trafalgar Studios, an older man, ostensibly on stage but there is not a defining line to such, stands, concentrated on ironing freshly washed jerseys. You settle in to the distant, pleasant sound of a lawnmower in action, and then the reverie is broken by the entrance of the half-dressed club manager, buttoning his cuffs and ready to sound off, and we begin a 90 minute uninterrupted journey of attachment, loyalty and betrayal, in Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion.
The play only features three characters: kit man and former star player John “Yatesy” Yates (John Bowler), the fired-up and personally troubled manager Jimmy Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), and the new player with promise, Jordan (Dean Bone). Each has a different relationship with the Red Lions – to Jordan it is his big chance, to Kidd, his latest chance, to Yates, it may be the one thing he has left in life. Each is hiding a desperation that will make them cross some lines.
Whether you were given your football allegiance at birth, made a choice of team based on location, player or maintaining a happy marriage, however you got there, if you love football, you surely must accept the flaws in the game as a whole. For every heartwarming small-fry FA win and swell of pride felt singing along at the pitch on a Saturday, there is a more mercenary, dark side of this global business that can’t be ignored. Wished-for coaches can last only weeks and players are human commodities that leave in the night just when you’ve fallen in love.
The Red Lion looks at what happens when the money is small and the dreams are on life-support. As an audience member, you don’t need to know anything about the Beautiful game to instantly become intrigued with the drama between these three men.
Jimmy Kidd has his team on a winning streak and has a realistic goal of the Red Lions getting promoted, bringing money and prestige to his tiny but much-loved outfit, and he sees this could come in the form of clean-cut player Jordan. Kidd is somewhat supported in his vision by Yates, older for sure, wiser in some ways and steadfast in his love of the game and the club that made him a big fish in this small pond way back when. Both Yates and Kidd quickly make decisions about how helping Jordan can help them, but for different reasons, and a tug of war over the impressionable youth ensues.
Tompkinson’s Kidd, devilish in all black save a red team tie, represents the money side of the business – wanting a winning side mostly as a way to make more bonus cash to bail out his personal debt. We learn a lot about the erratic manager in both the speed in which his mind jumps ahead to success, which may require unethical playing, and the manic mood swings that are the manifestation of a man nearing the end of his rope. From the dodgy haircut to the band of sweat on his brow, Tompkinson is completely inside of Kidd. You feel you know, or can speculate, on his road here, and he is so charismatic that you’re conflicted about wanting him to succeed or fail.
The quiet, shuffling Yates is a throwback to the now almost twee sense of team-as-community and, once we learn about his past, his reaching out to the young prospect puts his “what is good for the Red Lions club first” ethos into suspicion. He seems earnest, but as John Bowler delivers Yates’ biggest lines with a slightly desperate theatricality that hints at a former life comfortable in the public eye, look closely to notice the tremble in his upstage hand.
Off topic, maybe: Anyone get down to their undies in The Red Lion?
Completing the trio is Dean Bone as aspirational and talented Jordan, to whom a place on the bench of this tiny, barely salaried team means the world. His acquiescence to the more aggressive personalities offering guidance is genuine and makes you feel for this little fish.
The direction by Max Roberts perfectly fits the small space (this play, a revival from the National Theatre in 2015, has been staged in bigger but certainly not better venues) and, in a one-off post-play Q&A, playwright Patrick Marber talked about enjoying the intimacy of this setting, how is creates a better peek behind the scenes of a sport he knows and loves.
The result is an occasionally funny and always genuine power struggle between the three protaganists and their inner demons, and the setting of football is almost incidental. You’ll leave wondering what happens next for Jordan, Jimmy and John, and while common sense says we might not see them become out-and-out winners, how can you not cheer, or at least feel, for these underdogs?
Go see this lovely, human play – you have til December 2.
(images courtesy of Mark Douet)