Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Only a game? The Red Lion, Trafalgar Studios

It was fitting to see former QPR, Spurs and England player Gerry Francis taking his seat for this examination of the primal appeal of football - he is one of the greats and, indeed, a legend. The Red Lion is split between despair and eternal hope and there are times the language is poetic as Patrick Maber’s fluid prose took us deeper into our collective love of the game and sometimes the actors almost sang the words, just as we sing from the terraces.

You might have figured Mr Marber as an Arsenal fan, part of the well-educated Islington elite favouring the continental sophistication of these elegant under-achievers but for a number of years he forsook the former "Invincibles" to not only support but co-own Lewes AFC, a lower-league outfit whose existence he helped to ensure. As a former board member, he knows full well the tortured soul of the game even in the Isthmian League’s lower reaches.

Football rarely comes across well in performance arts – although for various reasons I never saw Fever Pitch (what Liverpool fan would...) – but Marber hits the target blasting the ball into the top of the net with unstoppable accuracy.

John Bowler and Stephen Tompkinson
He is aided by the quite exceptional performances of the three players, sorry, performers with Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler and Dean Bone (if you’re good enough, you’re old enough!) who form a powerhouse midfield trio who not only fully express themselves, they simply leave everything on the pitch…

Marber re-cut the play for its performance at Newcastle’s Live Theatre company and re-located it to the North East and the Northern League, the second oldest league in the World. This is one of the hotbeds of football, with deep roots intertwined with the local industries of ship building and coal mining. Here as much as Glasgow and Lancashire the passions run as deep as local culture and industrial rivalries. Bill Shankly may have had his tongue in cheek but we all know the truth in his suggestion that football was not a matter of life and death, it was more important than that. Yet, in the decades after that statement, football has lost its way as TV revenues dwarfed gate receipts and the game became business as sport.

This is reflected even in the lower leagues and Tomkinson’s Jim Kidd is a manager with Mourinho ideals, someone who thinks success is all that counts and that loyalty means just doing what he says. It’s a quite superb performance with the lad turning on an emotional sixpence, likeable to loath-able in equal measure, he has all of the best lines – this is a very funny play – and also reduces you to the verge of tears with a back story of loss and desertion. He can’t really love the club or even the game as he doesn’t really know how to care for himself and he’s not alone.

C'mon you irons! John Bowler
John Bowler plays Johnny Yates also known as “Ledg”, the man who once scored the winning goal in the second round of the FA Cup thereby ensuring the big payday that enabled the club to build its main stand. He later managed the club but his life fell apart when they were relegated and his home life collapsed along with his health. He eventually returned to become the club’s kit man still feted for past glories.

The play attacks at pace and for a while it’s the jokes that turn your head with Jim lambasting the club’s groundsman, who never forks the pitch, and  after Yates points out it’s laid on a former plague pit, the manager responds “I wonder how it drains so well?” Tompkison’s comic timing is absolutely spot on and it’s a joy to watch him run with Marber’s elaborate lines as if he’s just thought of them.

Bowler's Yates is the emotional heart of the play though, representing that era when loyalty was to the club, the fans and the community. He was a wholehearted player who threw is body on the line, passionate enough to make his lack of flair irrelevant and good enough to play a couple of seasons in the old Division Three. Now he has an almost religious faith in football to go with his life-long association with a club his father also played for.

Dean Bone as Jordan - a footballing rose between two thorns
He says he “found” Jordan (Dean Bone) when the youngster arrives at the club looking for a game almost like finding Jesus, the need for a saviour is so strong. Jordan has that supernatural edge rarely seen in non-league: he can play. Yet he also has a past and is hiding something from both manager and mentor… His arrival presents both with a chance to see their dreams realised as he guides the team to the top of the league. For Jim it’s the promise of a title and a better club, not to mention a transfer and a “bonus” whilst for John it’s the chance to see genuine talent thrive for its own sake.

The two men represent outlooks from a more collectively-conscious Britain to one soured by greed and self-delusion. Jordan comes from the chaos forged by the latter… it’s a very Brexit play, not in terms of subject but in mood. Where do we go now?

Max Roberts directs with a high pressing game which maintains narrative shape and impact throughout. He turns the Trafalgar studios into a cauldron of passion which pulls the compact audience in. At the end we let rip with cheers on top of applause – it's a great play for the neutral but we’d all recognised the need to take sides long before the end.

Don’t miss this one, superlative performances, high emotion and the determination that, even with 90 minutes fast approaching, it’s still all to play for: Total Theatre!!

The Red Lion plays until 2nd December and tickets are available from the Trafalgar Studios website. It is so strong I would be very surprised if it doesn't get promotion very soon!

IThankYouRating (has to be) *****

All photos courtesy of Mark Douet. 

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