In 1996, Gareth Southgate stepped up to take the final kick in England’s semi-final penalty shoot-out against Germany – and missed. That moment haunts Southgate, the team and the fans, exacerbating the “thirty years of hurt” and failure since England’s World Cup win in 1966. James Graham’s latest work explores the struggles of the England men’s football team to turn failure to success, a metaphor for the plight of the country seen through the lens of football. Southgate, appointed manager of the England team in 2016, recognises that the team, while talented, are sabotaging their own efforts and brings in a psychologist to help them address their fears. One day, maybe, the nation would not be cowering behind the sofa in buttock-clenching terror every time an international match was decided on penalties. Maybe one day England could start winning again. Eventually, of course, England did win a major tournament, but it was the Lionesses, freed from the weight of expectation that burdens the men’s team, who brought home the silverware from the Euros in 2022.
Es Devlin’s set is beautiful in its simplicity. A huge elliptical light hangs above the round, revolving stage with digital backdrops of Wembley, the players, historical events, countdowns to tournaments. Director Rupert Goold is restrained in his use of these features, letting the cast tell the story as they move in and out of the dressing rooms at their training ground and various stadiums around the world. Goold’s direction brings out the very best of his talented cast. And what a cast. Joseph Fiennes is magnificent as Southgate, replicating his mannerisms without becoming a caricature. His continued pain at that missed penalty in 1996 is right on the surface, as is his intense love of the game, for the team and for his country as he implements an innovative strategy to change the team’s mindset. Gina McKee is the perfect representation of the calm, measured psychologist, Dr Pippa Grange, getting to the bottom of the players’ issues, helping them express their feelings. In reality, it’s probable that Dr Grange received rather more pushback from the players than she did here though.
All the players are perfectly represented, the monosyllabic Harry Kane (Will Close), the group of young players from the youth squad brought in to refresh the team (such as Saka, Sancho and Rashford, played by Ebeneezer Gyau, Albert Magashi and Darragh Hand), the staff, the commentators. Gunnar Cauthery’s Gary Lineker is deliciously on point, and he also morphs into a convincing Sven-Goran Eriksson, Boris Johnson and Wayne Rooney.
Like football, Graham’s play is movement-oriented, at times balletic in its sequences (brilliant work by Movement Directors Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf), perfectly choreographed and athletic.
Graham doesn’t shy away from the racism that has plagued football and addresses the verbal on Rashford, Sancho and Saka after they missed penalties in the 2021 Euros Final, giving the players their voice to speak out about the racist abuse they suffer.
Dear England is about transformation, a team in flux, a nation in the grip of immense change. It’s funny, moving, painful, joyful – a big-hearted love letter to football, to the players, and to England herself.
Dear England is at the National Theatre until 11th August. Tickets are on sale from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/dear-england/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 27th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: