London theatregoers are currently faced with a choice of dining companions. After Breakfast with Mugabe, the RSC’s new play about the Zimbabwean dictator now transferring to the Duchess, the Menier Chocolate Factory is now offering the rather more personably enticing prospect of Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson by way of competition - except that, like Godot but unlike Mugabe, the English rugby star never actually appears.
But if the title is a come-on, Chris England’s new play takes place on a defining day of sporting triumph of which Wilko was such an integral part. A disparate group of fans gather at a local rugby social club to watch the match against Australia that won England the World Cup in the closing moments of the game being played out on the big screen. And if the tension of the onscreen outcome is somewhat dissipated by knowing the eventual result, the play is a triumph for England in every sense.
Unlike such other rugby plays as Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under or John Breen’s Alone it Stands (recreating a 1978 match when a local Irish team beat the New Zealand All Blacks), the playing of the game isn’t the thing but rather the play is. As with his long-running nineties West End hit An Evening with Gary Lineker, the playwright filters the nation’s sporting obsessions through an engaging portrait of the messy lives of its fans at a seminal moment for all of them.
The club is in political meltdown as chairman Dave, played by Norman Pace, faces an imminent challenge to his leadership from the Australian first team coach Matt (Michael Beckley), while the captains of the First XV (Tony Bell) and the Ladies XV (Beth Cordingley) and star player Jake (Kevin Wathen) have preoccupations of their own.
Jonathan Lewis directs a fast, smart production that’s another sure-fire commercial hit for the Menier.