Patrick Marber’s new play, The Red Lion, is a must watch for anyone who, like myself, cares about the future of the beautiful game. And anyone who cares about the theatre. Or anyone at all for that matter. A three-hander, featuring a set of memorable performances and a gloriously hyper-realistic set, it is tense, taught, and thoroughly absorbing from beginning to end.
The Red Lion boasts all of Marber’s trademark touches – mounting tension, complex characters, and a sweltering intimacy that renders one a sweat-soaked, brow-mopping wreck. Daniel Mays is Kidd, the maverick manager – more Tim Sherwood than Pep Guardiola – of a semi-professional, non-league football club. Peter Wight is his kitman Yates – the Peter Taylor to Kidd’s Brian Clough – a grey-haired ex-pro, devoted to the club. Calvin Demba is Jordan, the talented youth with the troubled past in who Kidd and Yates see the promise of something better. “He can play”, we are frequently told.
Marber uses Kidd, Yates and Jordan to explore the dilemma’s facing modern football. Kidd, with his arrogant swagger and fashionable gilet, represents the uglier, commercial side to the game. “It’s a business!” he cries, with spit-flecking conviction. Yates is his antithesis, a sentimental old-timer, who believes in sportsmanship, not gamesmanship, and reminisces about his august playing days with misty eyes. To Kidd, a player is an asset; to Yates, he is a symbol. Jordan is the youngster with the sweet right foot caught in the middle, being slowly corrupted by the Machiavellian manoeuvring of the older men.
Marber’s message seems clear. We must not fantasise about the return of the glory days when men were men and football was pure, but neither must we relentlessly pursue profit, encouraging gamesmanship where once was sportsmanship and corruption where once was virtue. “Where is the beauty in the beautiful game now?” is Marber’s question, “who amongst us really loves football”? Mays, Wight and Jordan are all thoroughly believable; Mays is particularly impressive in a frantic, fast-talking whirlwind of a performance.
Yet, as one would expect from a Marber play, The Red Lion is far from one-dimensional. As well as being a compelling character study and a provocative comment on the state of the game, Ian Rickson’s production is an aesthetic delight. All the action takes place in the dilapidated changing room, a beautiful wreck of a room complete with peeling walls, varnished wooden benches, taped-over windows and lime-encrusted sinks. The audience sees it in pre-match tension, with ironed shirts hung carefully on pegs, and in post-match euphoria, with muddy socks and boot-tape strewn across the floor. It may be my familiarity with such environments, but I struggle to remember a set that had me giggling with delight like Anthony Ward’s did.
Marber’s writing is perhaps the true star, however, at times incisively witty, and at times fantastically vivid. Sharp jokes and furious arguments mix with prolonged rants and nostalgic rambles. One particular digression of Yates, in which he evokes his finest moment scoring the winner in the first round of the FA Cup proper, is so brilliant evocative that one can smell the stud-marked grass and hear the roar of the crowd.
If there was one criticism to be made of The Red Lion, it is that, like some of his other work (the denouement of Dealer’s Choice springs to mind), it verges on testosterone-fuelled melodrama in its most climactic moments. All is pumping emotion, howling rage and aggressive ultimatums. There is little time for reflection, little time to take a breath even. In truth, though, one is so engrossed in Marber’s characters by that point – and so saturated in pressure-induced sweat – that this barely matters.
With The Red Lion, Marber has picked the ball up on the half-way line, carried the audience with him on a mazy dribble, then driven an absolute worldie in to the top-corner from 25 yards. It may lack subtlety at times, but it isn’t half good to watch.