Dear England – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: James Graham

Director: Rupert Goold

If you are ever on the streets when England are playing an important tournament, the eerie silence speaks volumes about the team’s fortunes, particularly if it involves a penalty shoot-out. James Graham’s dynamic new play, Dear England, explains why it matters so much and how deeply rooted concepts of British – and particularly English – identity manifest through support for the national team. Sports stories are never really about the sport, they are about endurance, overcoming the odds and the resilience needed to succeed, and this one fills the Olivier stage with joy but also a deep vulnerability in the very young men who step into the glaring international spotlight with little to protect them. Until Gareth Southgate comes along.

Still overshadowed by his own penalty miss in 1996, more than 20 years later Gareth Southgate becomes the caretaker England manager and promises a new approach that will support the players in the big moments. As conversation turns from tactics to mental health, not everyone believes in Southgate’s new strategy but his six-year plan for success will be the testing ground for a new kind of football. However, national politics and the power of public opinion might get to the players before Southgate’s plan can work.

Dear England is Graham’s most contemporary history play to date covering three major tournaments in the period 2016-2022 – two World Cups and the Euros – as Southgate embarks on a cycle of innovation that brings highs and inevitable lows across the show. While Graham’s earlier work has identified moments of change in post-war society that created populist pulses and their consequences for Britain today, Dear England is the beginning of a story whose longer-term outcomes lay ahead and the play focuses on the creation of team unity, the psychology of penalty-taking and how the changing political context influences how players are treated beyond the game itself.

And it is a story about national identity, an allegory for the country’s struggle to find purpose and meaning in its current state of decline. When Southgate describes the football team as ‘stuck’ and explores the expectation to win heaped on players at the start of every competition, Graham is speaking to a far broader narrative about Britain’s obsession with the past that recurs throughout the writer’s work and the ways it shapes political stagnation as the fantasy of what Britain could be and how the inheritance of collective trauma from repeated failure to return to a golden age that never existed, distracts from reality. Applying this to the plight of the national team in Dear England, Southgate sweeps away the illusions of victory and applies a more pragmatic approach to solving the real problems England players face.

In creating the football world, Graham offers a ticking clock that drives the drama and, as ever, a large and complex cast of managers, players, chairmen, trainers, physiotherapists, commentators, reporters and others as well as baying members of the public. But understanding what they all do is never the point, only that the swirl of activity demonstrates the many vested interests in the outcome of each game. But what sets Graham’s writing apart is the equal focus given to the fragility of the players and their leader, a conversation about male mental health in sport on one of the country’s biggest stages that provides a gut punch of deep vulnerability that perfectly balances the comedy cameos with the consequences for the people involved.

As Southgate Joseph Fiennes is soft-power hero, a humble man who creates presence through kindness and decency that slowly disarms even his greatest critics. But this Southgate is haunted by his own experience as a player, reticent to stand in the spotlight even when his position demands it and Fiennes uses that to create a trajectory for Southgate who – like several of Graham’s other lead characters – stops listening to those around him and suffers the consequences. Given a rare soliloquy alone on the Olivier stage extracted from the Dear England letter, Fiennes seizes the moment to set out Southgate’s ethos in a quietly powerful performance that underpins the show.

The large cast of players each make their mark, especially Will Close as Harry Kane who develops from an early figure of fun into the emotional heart of the play while Gina McKee is excellent as sports psychologist Pippa Grange overcoming embedded sexism and a lack of faith in her methods to coax the team into being. John Hodgkinson, Sean Gilder, Crystal Condie and Gunnar Cauthrey provide almost all of the context as entertaining versions of everyone from Gary Lineker and Alex Scott to Sam Allardyce, Theresa May and Sven-Gӧran Eriksson.

Running at close to three hours, the second half of the play could lose 10 or 15 minutes and while it foregrounds the direct experience of the players, some of that covers ground explained earlier in the play or revealed through the performances. But Dear England doesn’t require any prior football knowledge, no one tries to explain the off-side rule and while there are stats aplenty, the energy of director Rupert Goold’s production designed by Es Devlin creates an electric atmosphere in the Olivier. And while the longer-term outcomes of Southgate’s tactics may not be truly known for some years, the play leaves the audience with hope that the national team and the country can change.

Runs until 11 August 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Joyous and vulnerable

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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