This revised revival of Patrick Marber’s play set in the world of semi-professional, non-league football taps into an often heard lament from “real fans”; with players now millionaires courtesy of massive financial input from the likes of Sky Television and clubs being bought up by foreign billionaires, the game has drifted far from its roots as a focus for community spirit.
Inspired by the author’s own brief foray into the business end of non-league football, it’s set in the dressing room of an unnamed club in the North East where the balancing act between entertainment, results and keeping a financial head above water is ever present.
Stephen Tompkinson (DCI Banks, Brassed Off) stars as Kidd, the brash manager with an old-school passion for the game but also with a cynical realism that playing for a penalty, conning the ref and shady cash deals in the car park are what get results and keeps the financial wheels oiled.
The opposite of this is Yates (John Bowler — Heartbeat, Casualty), the veteran kit man and former player who has the lifeblood of the club coursing through his veins and who values traditional values of hard but fair play on and off the field.
Into this mix comes Jordan (Dean Bone) a naïve young player and a prodigious talent who is desperate to play and refuses to countenance any thought of bending the rules. For both men he is a talent to be nurtured, but conflict comes as Kidd increasingly comes to few him as a cash cow.
Running at a fitting 90 minutes (with a bit of injury time), this is a gritty, funny and ultimately heartbreaking work with dialogue that fair crackles along and demonstrates what those of us passionate about the game feel. Football is so much more than just 22 men kicking a ball about. It’s about loyalty, values, community and camaraderie.
Performances here are right out of the premier league of theatrical talent. Tompkinson is quite superb: effortlessly shifting from humour to tragedy as Kidd’s world implodes — not totally by his own doing. And he’s matched every inch of the way by Bowler, whose nuanced turn and moments of stillness are quite captivating.
This is a little gem. The boy Marber done good.
The Red Lion is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 2 December
You can book tickets for The Red Lion and other West End shows at Radio Times Box Office
Photography by Mark Douet