The Red Lion, written by Patrick Marber, follows the trials and tribulations of fictional non-league football club Red Lion F.C. in a story which questions the values of loyalty and pride in a twilight world.
As we take our seats, we watch the kit-man, Yatesy (John Bowler) pacing around a shabby dressing room, ironing the jerseys and diligently kissing the badge of each. Drummond Orr and Patrick Connellan’s lighting and set design of down-lit white-washed brick walls, rusted lightshades and a physio table that looks like it’s come straight from a P.E. store cupboard will have anyone who’s played for their local youth club feeling nostalgic. Bowler treats the scene with suitable reverence.
In fact, reverence and nostalgia become the over-riding themes of a production which is as much about contrasting visions of an England that might have been as it is about football. Marber’s script is poetic and anecdotal, in a way reminiscent at points of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, if less unhinged, and wholly safer, more misty-eyed and less starkly mythic.
We are introduced to charismatic yet beleaguered manager Jim Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson) who shatters the Saturday-afternoon quiet held by Yatesy with a whirlwind diatribe on the state of the pitch, the ref and the groundsman Ken. Tompkinson has impressive comic timing and an appealing camp flamboyance to his performance that raises laughs, even if it risks getting carried away with itself at points.
Kidd and Yatesy discuss the fortunes of the club – on the rise, thanks to the discovery of a prized possession, a youngster with the potential to be the real thing. Jordan, played by Dean Bone with an effortless vibrancy, feels the most grounded and believable of the three characters, but he too has skeletons in the closet and difficult paths to negotiate in a world torn between striving for personal gain and loyalty to a lowly team.
Immediately forced to stand his ground in the face of Kidd telling him to take the rules liberally – ‘you feel so much as a presence in the box and you tumble’ – Jordan is picked apart between the skewed values, schemeing and vicarious living of these two older men.
Religious themes run strong. Jordan declares himself a Christian early on. Yatesy remarks later ‘the kit man is a priest’ and ideas of salvation, forgiveness and morality are continuously played out. Arguably the metaphor is a little run into the ground by the end, and could have been played more softly, but it ultimately fits and is necessary to create a world in which people are looking beyond and above themselves, hoping for a glimmer of transcendence, either through their own doing, or via someone else’s talent.
Ultimately, this is a tragic tale of two men and a boy banging their heads sharply on a very low ceiling. Kidd’s insistence that he can make it back to this level of the game via youth teams and Sunday teams underlines the fact that none of them are going anywhere. That realisation, however, emphasises the love all three have for ‘the game’ they’re in. This, in effect, is a passion play, and, if at points a little Hallmark in its delivery, is an intriguing window into a lesser seen world.
The Red Lion is on until 6th May 2017 at Live Theatre, Newcastle. Click here for more details.