Prince Edward Theatre
The country that gave the world football has since delivered a painful pattern of loss. Why can’t England’s men win at their own game? The team has the worst track record for penalties in the world, and manager Gareth Southgate knows he needs to open his mind and face up to the years of hurt to take team and country back to the promised land. Dear England is a play about the pressures of elite sport and the role of the national men’s football team in the national psyche.
It was Southgate, who missed the penalty at the Euros in 1996 leaving the population angrily grieving a loss, and him a national villain. Many years on, he steps in as caretaker manager for an England team struggling with years of disappointment and failure and this after the debacle of Sam Allardyce’s one match in charge. With the help of psychologist Pippa Grange (a superb performance by Dervla Kirwan) he draws on his own experiences and sets the team a challenge to change their mindset; to commit to a process of self-assessment and mutual care, with impressive results.
At the centre of this production is a stunning and mesmerising Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate, passionate, energetic and inspiring. His leadership style is far more laissez-faire than his predecessors preferring to be called Gareth rather than ‘gaffer’ or ‘boss’. Fiennes manages to capture every mannerism both physical and verbal in a tour-de-force performance which makes you forget you are not watching the real Southgate. Only John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana have achieved similar success in their characterisations in recent years.
Elsewhere, the stage is littered with outstanding performances from Will Close who absolutely nails Harry Kane, Josh Barrow who provides several wonderfully comic moments as goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Paul Thornley as hard-man and assistant coach Mike Webster and in particular, Griffin Stevens as centre-back Harry Maguire.
The play covers the period 1996 right up to the present day and the results on the pitch are mirrored by the historical events of the time when England as a country was and still is trying to find it’s own national identity. What does it mean to be English? Southgate asks of his team who are made up of several individuals whose ancestry is far from English. A difficult question for many of the players who face racial abuse from the terraces on a weekly basis.
This is a country that has decided to go it alone and break away from it’s European partners, a country that appears to want to return to the age of imperialism when there could be no doubt about winning armed conflicts, when there could be no doubt about winning the World Cup and bringing it ‘home’ – powerful stuff.
James Graham’s play is funny, poignant and thought-provoking all at once and director Rupert Goold effortlessly fuses this wonderful play, sensational cast and exquisite set design by Es Devlin to produce an exceptional piece of theatre that thrashes most of what the West End offers.
Reviewer: Patric Kearns