Pain infuses this new play by Patrick Marber. You can almost smell it in the decayed ‘tin shed church’ of designer Anthony Ward’s football locker room, you can hear it in Ian Dickinson’s rain hammering on metal. But it’s not just the pain and religion of the beautiful game and here, its semi professional wannabes that fall under scrutiny. It isn’t just footy tribalism and slick catalogues and that family feeling that gets the extra time. It’s all the cruelty, the humour, the love, the expectation and disappointment that pervade the whole of life that grabs us and has us wanting to yell hoarsely from the stalls in the Dorfman’s pit. It’s young Jordan’s hopeless fight to make it as a pro, it’s manager Kidd’s need to turn the ‘sacred’ into a business of cheap tricks and underhand dealings so he can get his fix and it’s Yates’ utter desperate love of a football club, which, like all love, exacts a huge personal cost.
But these things aren’t just attributed to the world of football.
How like old mental asylums are decrepit locker rooms! Appropriate for Yates, played with such slow, measure by Peter Wight, as his silent, sad ways hide a trauma that surfaces when he feels everything he holds dear – young Jordan and the club- are under threat. Even the medical couch, which he makes into a substitute ironing board, feels like it’s a rack for electric shock treatment as he slowly steams the team’s kit. How like a prison for Kidd, with its locked cupboards betraying his lack of real power and ownership, barely able to contain Daniel Mays’ legs and arms as they flail against a future he cannot control. How like a safe haven it is and a church, at first, for Calvin Demba’s trusting presence as Jordan, who nevertheless holds something at the edge of his being that follows him around like the shadow of a defender.
Ian Rickson and Patrick Marber take us from the macrocosm to the microcosm. The pitch, that place of potential, where all the football action and its violence, joys and tribulations and here “a meadow of dandelions” that volunteer Ken refuses to fork, the pitch which in Kidd’s eyes becomes “emerald green” and causes Yates to become misty eyed, is offstage.
The real violence and drama is with Kidd’s desire to make a mark on the world with newcomer star Jordan. The violence is Yates own to himself as he struggles with loneliness, depression, unfulfilled potential and drink. The violence is Jordan’s hint at domestic abuse and the violence he enacts upon himself to rectify that and succeed at all costs, becoming amoral along the way. Finally the violence is what they do to each other as trust becomes betrayal, as friendship turns to hate, as individual need conflicts with the collective, as simmering personality peculiarities come to boil and, when they can stand it no longer in their bid to survive, the men fight.
Does it resonate? A bit is written about the comparisons between football and theatre, notably by Sarah Kane, who said famously you could walk out of a play and miss nothing, but not from a football match, where the story could change in a matter of seconds. She also wished that the same sort of passion reserved for the terraces could find its way into theatre. This is perhaps the play about football and about theatre to answer those qualms.
People talk about playwrights having an ear. Patrick Marber’s dialogue imbibes his characters with a backroom poetry you’ll want to hear again and again. Daniel Mays particularly enjoys his sometimes almost rhyming couplets, but Yates also has some cracking lines: “I was never so loved nor loved this life so strong”, as does Jordan: “you don’t get to mess with this maze”.
The Red Lion, like the best of them, is slow to start, but when it gets going, it’s a veritable symphony. It’s talk about football and life rooted in poetry. The mundane becomes the heavenly with Patrick Marber’s prose and it has a rhythm of its own.
And the interesting thing is how both the playwright and director Ian Rickson elevate the small to the big. This is semi pro amateur football here, but we feel like we are watching mad prophets, creatures of the mythical, doomed men prepared to die for what they believe in, Wagnerian heroes. Hugh Vanstone’s light paints them in the dusk, which hangs between proper daylight and real night, Stephen Warbeck’s music warns us not to get sentimental.
These are old warriors. They strive to attain their aspirations to reach enlightenment. And they represent, as a red lion should, the multiplicity of human nature.