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Pat Nevin: At last, a play that shows the authentic drama of the beautiful game

Dean Bone and Stephen Tompkinson in The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Mark Douet Dean Bone and Stephen Tompkinson in The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Mark Douet
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Last week, I saw two 95-minute performances that underlined the drama of football. Just 48 hours after commentating on Liverpool’s Champions League match in Seville, I saw The Red Lion, Patrick Marber’s study of the passions of non-league football, at Trafalgar Studios.

Surprisingly, after Liverpool’s shock three-goal capitulation, it was Marber who delivered the more credible narrative arc.

This is an important point; authentically depicting the inside of a football club dressing room has been beyond most art forms, with cinema being serial offender. To a veteran of 19 years as a pro, The Red Lion rang true from the first minute. It left me thinking the playwright must have had an inside source.

The attention to detail was meticulous, from the backdrop to the evocative smell of liniment, and the intimate setting at The Trafalgar Studios put you right inside the dressing room with the performers.

The depth of inside knowledge of that sacrosanct space was eerie at times. How did Marber get the tone of those discussions so perfectly judged? The football phraseology was accurate but never felt shoehorned in – a common failing by those outside the game.

All three characters move like their real football counterparts, which is a neat trick. The physio, played by John Bowler, has the gait and world weariness of a man steeped in the lower leagues – one who has suffered the physical and psychological blows of life at the bottom of the football pyramid.

The manager would have been the easiest to caricature, and although he has all the foibles of the classic spiv football boss, Stephen Tompkinson thankfully isn’t tempted to lunge towards parody.

Managers are larger than life, but the secret is that much of their bravado is front. Most of the pros, and many fans, don’t see through it. Marber does and tears away at the outward cockiness, stripping him back, weakness by weakness and lie by lie, while still allowing him some sympathy.

Though densely packed, the play never rushes through or skirts the complex issues that shadow those in professional sport whatever their level.

Then there were the moral quandaries. To dive or not to dive – that was the question for Dean Bone’s rising star on whom the others had pinned their hopes. Can the manager openly encourage it? I played for two decades and never dived once. It would seem to be the honourable thing, but my career may have suffered for it.

During the play, the manager never openly calls for simulation: it is heavily implied, just as he talks around the not-always-legal financial incentives Bone’s character could pocket if he loosened the grip on his moral compass. Money looms large in the background of the play. The fiddles that can often be portrayed in black and white, are nuanced and researched enough to get the nod of this grizzled ex-pro.

In its tight running time, The Red Lions deals insightfully with issues including the strain on family relationships, which are endemic in football, to the role of those in the boardroom and the wider effect of  business on every level of the beautiful game.

The real story is the beautifully drawn relationships between the three main characters – it neatly weaves in manipulation, trust and the fear they each have of losing something they love.

Even with each psychological kick, Marber shows you the glory the game brings at any level. It may only be for a fleeting moment for most of those who have given large parts of their lives for that dream, but he captures the truth of their desperation wonderfully. I just wonder who that source was.

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