Review by Daz Gale
One of the most talked about and acclaimed plays of the year is coming home to the West End as Dear England pitches up at the Prince Edward Theatre. While the initial run at National Theatre earlier this year won universal praise from fans and critics alike, would it lose any of its essence by moving out of the Olivier Theatre or would it be another victory for them?
Dear England takes a look at a very recent chapter in our history as it tells the story of Gareth Southgate’s England football team. As Gareth pulls them out of a slump to achieve the most successful results they have had in decades, the play charts their journey through the 2018 and 2022 World Cups with a bit of Euro 2020 (in 2021) in between. If that doesn’t sound like the most enthralling of premises or something that will only appeal to lovers of football, prepare to have your expectations challenged in this beautifully accessible and surprisingly deep show.
James Graham may already be known for the calibre of his writing but in Dear England, he is at his very best as he navigates the locked-in events from the past seven years while imagining situations and dialogue in scenes which quite easily can lead you to forget you are watching fictional elements as the whole thing could believably be verbatim. His writing has elements of humour, channelling the absurdity of certain situations, but more than anything, is full of heart. In Dear England, he has created a story that works on multiple levels as it uses the beautiful game to showcase human emotions we all can relate to, to an extent, with the idea of fear and specifically the fear of failure ever-present along with the challenge to overcome demons from your past.
The play tackles serious themes with an unflinching and brutal honesty to the racism that has dogged players of the team providing some of the more emotional moments throughout. Crucial to the story is the art of storytelling in itself, with themes of how to tell your story and ensuring it has a beginning, middle and end all playing its part in a refreshing way to look at something, with football providing a metaphor for life. It may be a play of two halves but both are equally enthralling, with no pacing issues ensuring it loses its way in its second act at all.
If you think Dear England will only appeal to fans of football, I am living proof that is not the case. As someone who as a kid thought being asked who your favourite team are was a reference to the Jets or the Sharks, I can’t claim to have ever been a great lover of the sport. While there are definitely some moments buried in the play that will prove even more satisfying for football fans, this is a story that uses football as a mask to tell a far more open story which speaks to the very essence of humanity. In that respect, it is completely accessible to all. In the clever way it draws comparisons to challenges in life with moments related to the sport, it deceptively allows you to buy into the spirit of the game and had me leaving the theatre convinced I should buy a season ticket.
As sensational as James Graham’s writing is, it is elevated further by Rupert Goold’s stunning direction, creating varied ways to convey the story with some truly inspired and playful choices. Two very different sequences centring on penalties are directed with such panache, they become among the most gripping moments of the show with the ability to hear a pin drop, particularly in the painfully realistic second sequence which is realised without words. The use of movement from Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf ingeniously intersperses kicks throughout the performance as characters either score a goal or a miss (poor Theresa May. Yes, really) while ensemble numbers are always fantastic visually thanks to the meticulous yet naturalistic movement.
Speaking of the visual elements to Dear England, Es Devlin’s set design is a thing of beauty. Always knocking it out of the park with her determination to push boundaries in what is capable with set design, it provides a winning backdrop for the action to take place. Gorgeous lighting design from Jon Clark and video design from Ash J Woodward ensures the show is consistently a treat to watch in what has to be one of the greatest designed shows of the year.
The main role of Gareth Southgate is played by Joseph Fiennes in what may be a career-defining role. He Joseph gives a masterclass performance in his characterisation of the England manager, channelling the complexities as he is given an impossible job while coming to terms with his own traumatic past. In other hands, this may have turned into a caricature performance that could dangerously veer into parody territory. There is no such danger here with this safe pair of hands, maximising all the potential that is possible from the story and driving it through.
No matter how familiar you are with the England football team, there is no denying the impressive performance from a consistently wonderful cast who embody the much loved players. Highlights include Josh Barrow’s delightfully energetic turn as keeper Jordan Pickford, Darragh Hand’s Marcus Rashford and a particularly crowd-pleasing turn from Will Close in an uncanny impersonation of Harry Kane, providing many a comic moment with his impeccable characterisation.
Dervla Kirwan shines in her role as Pippa Grange with her performing forming most of the catalyst for change which drives the story forward. In a performance that is sympathetic and always captivating, at times it feels like we are watching the play through her eyes as this outsider is brought into an unfamiliar world. Her performance is part of what makes Dear England so accessible to all. Crystal Condie is another highlight with a series of supporting roles taking on some very familiar names including Alex Scott and a scene-stealing turn as Theresa May, while Gunnar Cauthery has a lot of fun in his roles including Boris Johnson, Wayne Rooney and a strikingly good Gary Lineker.
This was my second time seeing Dear England. As much as I loved it the first time around, I wasn’t sure how well it would hold up on a repeat viewing. Inexplicably, it is even better in this iteration, perhaps down to the performances feeling more seasoned. While the acting and direction are as good as it gets, it really is the writing that puts Dear England at the top of the league. Using football as a metaphor for deep-rooted factors of humanity is an inspired touch and one that has effortlessly transcended beyond the pitch and even beyond the stage. The way this play manages to connect with its audience, finding its way into their very soul, is something few shows manage to achieve successfully. The feeling of euphoria that overwhelms you watching this and the ability to lose yourself into the story, escaping from reality completely, is a testament to what theatre can do at its very best.
Quite honestly, this show surprised me at how much I liked it but it is hard to fault what may be one of the most perfect plays the West End has seen in a long time. When it comes to theatre this year, this beautiful play about the beautiful game really hits the back of the net.
Dear England plays at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13th January. Tickets from www.dearenglandonstage.com
Photos by Marc Brenner