Review by Daz Gale
It’s been a brilliant year for both National Theatre and James Graham. Everything National Theatre touches seems to turn to gold lately with multiple shows transferring to the West End. Similarly, James Graham has been on a bit of a winning streak with Best of Enemies and Tammy Faye in the last year alone. If those were the first two acts in his three act story, consider Dear England the climax. Telling the story of something that is so fresh in everybody's minds was always going to be risky but could he score another hit with this one or would it be a bit of an own goal?
Dear England is the story of Gareth Southgate as he takes on the role of manager to the England football team. Having to deal with demons from his own past, he attempts to bring the team out of a low point in their history through new and unconventional tactics in this story which saw the team appear in a final for the first time for over 50 years. I am well aware that some people reading this may not be fans of football and may write Dear England off immediately for that alone. If ever a show was the embodiment of the phrase "Never judge a book by its cover", it's this one. Far more than a tale about a few men kicking a ball around, Dear England is full of surprising depth and emotion. As someone who knows as much about football as running the country (though still perhaps more than Liz Truss) I didn't expect this show to have much to offer me. I was wrong.
James Grahams writing has time and time again proved to be consistently brilliant and Dear England is no exception. Showing an effortless ability to transcribe real events and imagine dialogue and moments that weren't played out for the camera, he has created a story that feels completely authentic and one that blurs the lines of theatre. There are few times I can recall being so convinced the story playing out in front of me is really happening - James' writing is a major factor in that happening here. Pure escapism at its finest. Dear England is a show of two halves and if half of it is James Grahams stunning writing, the other half is Rupert Goolds exemplary direction. Every choice when it comes to bringing the words to life with actions has been painstakingly thought out to phenomenal effect with every single choice executed flawlessly. Bringing theatricality to the world of theatre in a way that doesn’t feel a million miles away from the real thing can’t be underestimated. These are two remarkably different worlds but in Dear England, you would think they were as close as it can get.
This is a very stylish looking show with Es Devlin once again working her magic to create an astonishing set design. All the visual elements blend together beautifully to create a gorgeous aesthetic with a particularly innovative use of video design from Ash J Woodward and glorious lighting from Jon Clark making it a hat-trick, These elements ensure the narrative has the best possible chance of being played out with Goolds directing choices using these brilliantly.
A playful use of movement from Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf sees cast members come and go in increasingly inspired methods with several freezeframe moments throughout the course of the show an undoubted highlight. Also proving important in Dear England is the use of sound with Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons’ design using effects, chants and music in a magical way.
Stepping in to the shoes of a real-li character can be a risky business. It is even riskier when said person is a national hero with the events in question having taken place over the last few years. Unphased by this, Joseph Fiennes takes on the role of Gareth Southgate and, for all intents and purposes, completely becomes him. In a truly astonishing performance, Joseph taps in to every intricacy of Gareths nature and personality in a performance so believable, at times I forgot I was watching an actor. Understated at times but with an emotional undertone that always connected, he delivered one of the greatest performances I have seen this year.
Other highlights among the impressive cast are Will Close’s uncanny impersonation of Harry Kane, Josh Barrows brilliant Jordan Pickford and Darragh Hand’s captivating turn as Marcus Rashford. Gina McKee brings an interesting element to the show with a warm and sensitive turn as Pippa while Crystal Condie shows remarkable versatility with roles including Alex Scott and Theresa May. A special mention also has to go to Gunnar Cauthery – the man of a thousand faces who manages to steal scenes playing Boris Johnson, Sven-Goran Eriksson and especially a standout turn as Gary Lineker.
Dear England is not simply a story about football. There are those who write football off as something insignificant and others who cite it as an important part of their life. While it may not feature in mine, I can compare it to my love of theatre and what that means to me. As I said, however, there is more than football at play here. This is a show with far more psychological elements with themes of conquering your fears, battling your demons and keeping hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. It is a show that is often joyous and jubilant that manages to remain triumphant even in its darkest hours. Eternally hopeful and optimistic, what has been created is a show that is surprisingly life-affirming. Admirably, it also doesn’t shy away from more serious issues that have plagued the world of football over the years, tackling the racism that players have had to face as well as the problems the team faced when playing in a country opposed to gay rights.
Storytelling is at the heart of Dear England and what a story it is. Though it may not be the most conventional and may not have the ending you would necessarily expect (unless you remember the events of last year, of course) it is still a highly satisfying tale that thrills from start to finish. A beautiful production about the beautiful game. It felt great to see a story as positive as this coming home to a London stage – I wouldn’t be surprised if this continues James Graham’s track record and gets a West End transfer itself in the not-too-distant future. If it does, it really would be very well deserved. To quote the chant from ‘Sweet Caroline’, Dear England really is so good, so good, so good. Both James Graham and National Theatre have scored a winning goal with this one.
Dear England plays at the Olivier Theatre until 11th August. Tickets from nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner