Transporting the messy, masculine, larger-than-life world of non-league football onto the smaller stage at Trafalgar Studios is no mean feat. However, seen in a revival by Newcastle company Live Theatre following its 2015 debut at the National, Patrick Marber’s love letter to the lesser-seen side of the beautiful game is a perfect fit for this stage. Fast-paced and with progressively higher stakes, Marber’s script is not just representative of football itself—it’s also very, very good. Conversation snaps and crackles between the three characters, and even when the line between realism and exaggerated dialogue begin to blur (mostly during the end-of play monologues), there’s an inherent truthfulness to each actor’s words.
Over the course of a match-length 95 minutes (if we tack on some injury time), the audience sits in at the dressing room of Red Lion F.C, a Northern non-league football club that a red crest painted on the wall tells us was established in 1892. Patrick Connellan’s design is a real revelation, as well as an example of how to make the most of a small space that many West End venues might do well to learn from. We’re transported into The Red Lion’s world immediately, and the attention to detail is impressive. Alongside the crest on the painted-white exposed brickwork, the red and yellow kits, slightly shabby sink area and worn benches with (even more worn) clothes hooks all remind us that this is definitely not the glossy world of million-pound deals and WAGs. This is football kept alive due to one thing, and one thing only: the love of the fans. In the case of co-operatively owned non-league teams, their money too.
One such fan is John Bowler’s Yates, heavy-faced and shuffling quietly but purposefully around the stage. “15 years unpaid” as a kit man, Yates represents the heart of non-league, someone who does it for more than the love of the game—he does it for survival. Years before, we learn, Yates’ was found homeless and mentally ill, with nothing but the crest tattooed on his heart and the fact he would ‘do nothing but roar’ a sign of who he was or where he came from. As the play progresses and his integrity (and eventually, role in the club’s future) is called into question, it’s perhaps Yates’ downfall that stings the most. It’s Yates’ rage, too, that felt the most present in the space. When he finally reveals to Red Lion F.C’s new manager Kidd why he doesn’t like him, each word feels like a slap in the face. It’s testament to Bowler’s acting that despite his sudden, biting cruelty, we know exactly whose side we are on. It’s little wonder, then, it’s Boweler who gets the play’s last word.
Saying that, Stephen Tomkinson’s brashy, rude, egotistical manager Kidd more than holds his own, as does young relative newcomer Dean Bone as Jordan, Red Lion’s new wonderkid player with a sketchy past, (semi-)unshakeable morals and a strong belief in God. They both also suffer from their own falls from grace, although it’s Kidd who falls the furthest. However much like Jordan’s religious beliefs, resurrection beckons: when Tomlinson leaves the stage for the last time to speak with the club trustees, he might be certain he’ll be sacked, but he’s also certain he’ll work his way from the bottom and rise again. We believe in him too. A fundamentally rude, mean man—who despite managing his players has managed to also fail as a husband and father—Kidd is the antihero a play about football deserves.
Introducing the hopes, wants and fears of three characters in a little more than 90-minutes (another nod to the game) shouldn’t feel as easy at The Red Lion makes it appear. The beautiful game is one of shades of grey, and The Red Lion’s three men, at different ages and stages of their football careers, come together here to present a complex but touching portrait. A portrait of masculinity, fragility, and the way the two interact with one another. It’s a real treat, and for football-lovers—especially those of us with non-league clubs we hold in our hearts—The Red Lion is definitely worth seeing.
The Red Lion is on at Trafalgar Studios until 2nd December. Book tickets here.