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The Stage Critic Search 2015 – grand finalists review The Red Lion

Calvin Demba, Peter Wight and Daniel Mays in The Red Lion. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Following the finalists’ reviews [1] we have now whittled down our entrants to the final three. We asked them to review The Red Lion [2]by Patrick Marber at the National Theatre. You can watch a video of our three reviewers introducing themselves below.

Reviewer: Lee Anderson

Lee Anderson [3]

In its capacity to inspire unrestrained affection or provoke unrepentant violence, it is difficult to imagine another sport that touches the same nerve in our nation’s psyche than football. In The Red Lion – Patrick Marber’s first new play in nearly 10 seasons for the National Theatre – the playwright tackles our emotional connection with the national game.

The play kicks off with Kidd (Daniel Mays), the manager of a minor league team struggling to restore the fortunes of his fledgling club. But when it looks like hope has arrived in the brilliant but volatile Jordan (Calvin Demba), the intervention of old mentor Yates (Peter Wight) opens rifts that threaten to engulf the club.

There are few successful comebacks in football. A shredded ligament or fractured shin bone can kill a career no matter how illustrious. Thankfully, The Red Lion proves that time hasn’t injured Marber’s talents for potent dialogue – whether pious, poetic or profane – or his command of broken men in desperate circumstances.

The play resounds with allusions to churches, graveyards and priests, conjuring a sacred and solemn world further underscored by Ian Dickinson’s drizzly soundscape and Anthony Ward’s battered changing-room design, adorned with tattered flags, chipped tiles and crumbling paintwork.

If football is indeed a form of religion, then the characters in Marber’s play are trapped in a purgatory of debt, defeat and disappointment.

On the one hand, The Red Lion is a paean to soggy training grounds, mud-spattered shin pads and burger stands; a eulogy for the inviolable contract between man, ball and turf. But like Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (National Theatre, 2002) or John Donnelly’s The Pass (Royal Court, 2014), it’s the politics behind the game that takes centre stage.

The legacy of Thatcherism ghosts through the lives of the play’s characters. Kidd’s scheme to exploit Jordan for profit reduces the young player to a mere commodity, while Yates’ undimmed devotion to the broken bonds of his working-class community struggles against the tyranny of Kidd’s hard-nosed pragmatism.

Director Ian Rickson manages his team with a deft hand and capitalises on the holy trinity of Mays, Wight and Demba. Mays is a lethal combination of brawler and charmer, swaggering through the play like some amphetamine-fuelled Del Boy. Meanwhile, Wight cuts a tragic-comic Falstaffian figure as the immovable Yates, while Demba’s Jordan prowls the stage with animal vitality and raw intelligence.

However, in lending full rein to the performances, Rickson’s production becomes overwrought. Marber’s writing too often veers from wry nostalgia into downright mawkishness, and, despite the cast’s considerable talents, the combination of wistful lyricism and hard-bitten chatter can seem awkward.

While The Red Lion isn’t as revelatory as his early work, Marber’s bruising poem to solidarity and fair play marks a welcome return to the playwright’s old theatrical stomping ground.

Verdict: Marber doesn’t quite manage to score a blinder, but The Red Lion offers a blistering kick about with top-league players [three stars]

Reviewer: Jafar Iqbal

Jafar Iqbal [4]

It’s been a while since his last original play, but Patrick Marber proves he hasn’t lost his silky touch. Love, sex and politics were tackled in plays such as Dealer’s Choice and Closer, but his attention now turns to the beautiful game.

Non-league football is the unglamorous backdrop for this prickly three-hander exploring the fruits of ambition at their most gratifying and ruinous. Club legend Yates (Peter Wight) wants nothing but glory for the team to which he has given his entire life, manager Kidd (Daniel Mays) already has his sights set on bigger things, and bright young star Jordan (Calvin Demba) will do anything just to get on the pitch. When the team begins showing some promising results, success doesn’t unite these men – it divides them.

Running through The Red Lion is one of the themes that have come to define Marber’s writing, namely the role truth plays in the characters’ relationships. Just like the couples in Closer, loyalty here isn’t unconditional; it’s a contract that requires negotiation and manipulation. Kidd revels in that wheeling and dealing, particularly when weaving fact, fiction and hyperbole together to manipulate Jordan in their first encounter. It’s captivating to watch.

Masculinity, another Marber trademark, also rears its ugly head. Marber relishes in stripping away the manhood from his men. Kidd lives and dies by his warped ideal of manliness – at his best he is a force of nature and at his worst he crumbles spectacularly under the weight of his own ego. It’s an explosive performance from Mays, who runs around the stage like a playmaker on the field, dictating the pace and controlling the action.

Equally absorbing is Wight as Yates, who has lost everything but an unwavering loyalty to his team. Wight’s portrayal of the depressed and lonely man is utterly convincing. As good as director Ian Rickson is at marshalling the high-energy action scenes, where he really excels is in the tenderness he brings to quieter moments. Nothing exemplifies this more than Yates’ bittersweet last hurrah in the play’s powerful, albeit predictable, climax.

The revelatory performer in the play should have been Calvin Demba, had his character not been underutilised and underwritten. This young actor oozes raw intensity, especially when Jordan stands up to Kidd and refuses to cheat, citing his faith. It’s a fascinating wrinkle to the character, but one that’s never brought up again. Character development is sacrificed for plot progression, much to Demba’s detriment.

Inevitably, anything Marber writes is held up against the quality he presented in Closer. While The Red Lion doesn’t pack as big a punch as that, it is the work of a writer back to his best. The winning formation has been rediscovered and, with it, Marber’s return to the big league.

Verdict: The ugly side of the beautiful game is expertly dissected by a hat-trick of exceptional performances and a writer back on form [four stars]

Reviewer: Dave Fargnoli

David Fargnoli [5]

Football is life and death for some. It’s fitting, then, that the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris – in his deliberately accessible first season – has programmed this new play by a great populist writer, on a subject that impassions people from all walks of life.

The Red Lion follows a struggling, sub-league club given another shot at success with the arrival of talented but troubled newcomer Jordan (Calvin Demba). While manager Kidd (Daniel Mays) scents an opportunity for some profit on the side, faded legend Yates (Peter Wight) is seeking a more spiritual redemption. All three give bold, nuanced performances, with May in rapid-fire wheeler-dealer mode, and Wight misty-eyed with battered righteousness. Demba is shaping up into a real talent too, with a striking physical performance that snaps from awkwardly hunched to lithe and dangerous, perfectly conveying his character’s brittle, burgeoning confidence.

Ian Rickson’s scrupulous production lends every moment an air of well-worn authenticity. The wordless opening, in which Yates lovingly launders the team’s vivid red shirts, is the most enjoyable five minutes of ironing you’re likely to see. Taken together with Anthony Ward’s evocative stains-and-all stage design, and Hugh Vanstone’s elegant lighting, the atmosphere is so believable you might expect oranges to be provided in the interval.

As with his debut Dealer’s Choice (which premiered at the National in 1995), Marber’s script is a glimpse into a closed, masculine world. “It stays in the locker room,” Kidd roars as his crooked scheming comes to light, “that’s the only rule.” In fact, there’s a tangled net of social codes in play, from Yates’ nostalgic veneration of the club’s past heroes, to Kidd’s Oedipal need to exceed them. Sucked into a struggle between profit and the Spirit of the Game, their manoeuvring through shame and respect, put-downs and pride is quietly thrilling to watch.

Though the ripe language and reverent observations are dead on target, it’s something of an own goal that these rich details end up overwhelming the simple, slow-burning plot. It’s not until the closing moments of the first act that the stakes begin to sharpen, and though it’s inevitable that the three characters’ wildly different dreams of glory will pull them apart, the unravelling comes in fits and starts.

In a football match, a sudden reversal would have fans on their feet; here, it seems strangely muted. Like a former athlete gone to seed, the play feels flabby. Even excellent design, committed performances and Marber’s enviable ear for dialogue can’t quite summon up the energy this needs to go the distance.

Though the play’s sentiments are undoubtedly sincere, you can’t help but wonder what it might have achieved if it had been pared down to a lean 90 minutes.

Verdict: Dragging into extra time, Marber finds beauty in the beautiful game [three stars]