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The Red Lion

The Red Lion at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Red Lion at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This is a hymn. Patrick Marber returns to the National – where his first play, Dealer’s Choice, was staged back in 1995 and where his adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country will be presented next month – with a play suffused with a love of football.

Set entirely in the faded locker room of small-time semi-pro club – elegantly designed by Anthony Ward, the red of the clubs shirts popping against the weathered white wood – it’s a world away from the glamour and excess of top-level professional football.

The three characters, each in their own way, live for the game. Calvin Demba’s Jordan is young, keen and talented. He makes the club’s mouthy manager, Daniel Mays’ Kidd, bright with excitement. But Yates, the aging, gently paternal kit man, is more cautious. All of these men are in some way damaged and lonely and find support and stability in the club and each other. All of them speak of the game with reverence and a depth of emotion, as if to be part of this world is a necessity to them, like breathing. The language of worship is often deployed when they talk about it.

Just as he did in Dealer’s Choice, Marber excels at building the world of these three – the terminology they use, the wrangling over contracts, the tactics, the deal-making – while also conveying the shifting layers of admiration and affection that exist between them. But, for all that, it’s not the easiest play to find a way into. The first half, which takes place before a pivotal match, is slow-going and though Ian Rickson’s production has an air of authenticity, this doesn’t stop it from feeling a bit flat, a bit tentative in the beginning. The second half, however, is far more dramatically charged, with Kidd’s scheming back-firing and all their futures at the club threatened.

While the play feels lopsided and the emotional clout of the ending somewhat unearned, the performances are all incredibly rich and considered. Calvin Demba builds on the considerable promise he recently displayed in Rory Mullarky’s The Wolf from the Door at the Royal Court, while Daniel Mays’ strutting and swagger conceal a wealth of insecurities. And he gets to do that crying face that he does so well, working his jaw, sweat streaking down his temples. Peter Wight’s performance as Yates is one of great delicacy and tenderness; there are all manner of hidden things behind his eyes. He is the emotional heart of the play.

Though it has a few moments of real potency and transcendence, this is probably a production that will be more rewarding if you have a better understanding of the game and its hold over people – if you share the love that flows hot and deep through the writing.

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Patrick Marber’s slow-burning ode to football and what it means to those who love it