Max Roberts’ take on Patrick Marber’s play The Red Lion is filled with guts and glory, much like the football that can be found in the lower leagues of England’s favourite sport. It takes place inside the locker-room of a lower-tier English club in the Northern league where little ever goes their way and the best players are poached to clubs who can pay them more. The manager (Stephen Tompkinson) is at his wit’s end and has enough dirty laundry for himself and the kit man (John Bowler), a former player of the club who dreams of his glory days but now is a glorified ironer. Their fortunes change when a talented young player (Dean Bone) starts to make an impact on the team and they both try to use him for their own personal agendas.
The space was intimate in Trafalgar Studios second stage where the staff were very friendly and I found myself right in the front row where I could feel the steam of the freshly-ironed jerseys. The play started bombastically: Tompkinson chewed the scenery as the manager of ‘The Red Lions’ to the point where I did wonder whether it would become too pastiche but before the first act drew to a close it was clear that there were darker edges to this play.
In an era of ludicrous money circulating at the very top of the game, the play did a great job of showing how the effects of that trickle down the leagues and have impacts on every facet of the game. The levels of self-interest and callous disregard of what made people form football clubs in the first place make for bleak consideration, yet the play was both romantic and realistic about its place in football in the modern era. There were shades of Mick McCarthy, or more specifically, Sam Allardyce about Tompkinson’s character whose run-ins with authority were reminiscent of Allardyce’s in the England role which saw him last all of 67 days in charge of the national squad.
The performances were played with humour and heart, though I felt like Dean Bone’s youth player could have been more fleshed out as he was rather eclipsed by the more compelling performances of his colleagues, though he made the most out of what he was given. The set was also authentic and truly made you believe you were a fly on the wall of a struggling club.
I recommend this is a way of getting a deeper understanding of what football means for the people away from the cameras and glitz as it is harder and harder to connect to a sport that constantly rewards selfishness and mercenary behaviour. I believe you can take away some heart from this performance and it may even make you yearn for a time where football was the working person’s game. It certainly made me do that.
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Running until the 2nd December 2017.