Silverware may well have eluded the England men’s team for almost 60 years but James Graham’s latest state-of-the-nation play seems certain to receive plenty of accolades over the coming months - and rightly so. A vital piece of theatre, capturing the hopes and dreams of an exasperated nation, Dear England is a gripping watch for both the diehard and casual football fan.
Gareth Southgate took over as England manager in autumn 2016, with expectations of the Three Lions at an all-time low. Under his tutelage, the team saw steady progress, on and off the pitch, combined with a new focus on compassion and wellbeing of the playing squad. Despite wildly unjustified criticism from the sport’s perennial reactionaries, the Southgate era has changed England and how it sees itself for good and Dear England goes some way to crystallise that not insignificant achievement.
Having enjoyed a hugely successful sell-out run at the National Theatre and hot on the heels of rave reviews, Dear England is sure to become a West End hit throughout its limited run at the Prince Edward Theatre. The masterful Joseph Fiennes completely embodies Southgate, detailing the most minute of his mannerisms. Throughout the play, Fiennes grows in stature as the England manager becomes more confident, more assured and, vitally, more freed from his past demons.
But that is only possible with the help of psychologist Pippa Grange, played deftly by Dervla Kirwan. Stepping into big shoes left by Gina McKee, who didn’t transfer with the show across from the National, Kirwan bounces off Fiennes as the pair plot a new approach for the England team. Beyond the show’s two leads, the players - household names to many - are portrayed somewhere between expert impersonation and caricature. But it is touching to see the audience's perspective of Harry Kane (Will Close) shift as the pressure and expectation on England’s captain ramps up as we move through the tournament cycles.
Director Rupert Goold strikes the right balance between comedy and sincerity. The only jarring moments are the over-the-top portrayals of former prime ministers May, Johnson and Truss. Meanwhile, co-movement directors Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf will take credit for the compelling way in which the matches, least of all the tense penalty shoot-out scenes, are depicted. It’s never easy to translate sport into theatre but the energy never drops off and non-football fans will be able to follow what is happening on the pitch, if not the wider context of the England team’s complex historical narrative.
The only real criticism can be that it is nigh-on impossible to squeeze everything into a play that runs to just shy of three hours long and the latter stages do feel a little rushed. Much of the on-pitch focus is on World Cup 2018, especially the Colombia penalty shoot-out, as well as the Euro 2020 final. This means some of the context of how Southgate’s tournaments have ended is lost. England were outplayed and outclassed by Croatia in 2018, then again by Italy in 2020. But, by 2022, they were equals - if not superior - to the then-world champions France. That is where the hope for the future comes from, although it is not abundantly clear to the uninitiated.
The abuse Southgate has had directed at him, despite being the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey brought football home in 1966, is only lightly hinted at. In reality, his continuing in the job has been a constant source of gleeful speculation for those who cannot see or appreciate his wider contributions to English football. In fact, in spite of the show’s uplifting final moments, the real Southgate came close to walking away from the ‘impossible job’ in the wake of the Three Lions’ most recent tournament exit in Qatar.
However, James Graham’s wonderful retelling of the Southgate era is undoubtedly the play of the year and deserves all of the success that comes its way. It does not shy away from tackling racism faced by England’s black players, geographical and class divides within the squad and, most tellingly, what it means to be patriotic. During a time when the worst elements of our society try to define what it is to be English, Dear England is all the more needed - just like Southgate himself.
Dear England plays at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13th January. Tickets from £25: here.
Review: Tom Ambrose Photos: Marc Brenner