The worlds of football and theatre don’t tend to collide, but thanks to the writing of James Graham, the two polar opposites have come together with powerful force in Dear England.
The play, which recently transferred from the National Theatre to the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre, looks at the recent history of our Three Lions – the England Football team.
From Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss in Euro 96, to becoming the manager of England in 2016, the last 20 years has undoubtedly been a trying – and painful – time for the current England head honcho.
The story starts when Southgate takes charge of the England team as caretaker manager – a job that he assures his coaching staff never turns into a full-time role. Joseph Fiennes as Southgate seems quiet and contemplative; not wanting to cause rifts between the current coaching staff and his own team, but clearly aware of the huge changes that need to happen within the England camp.
Dear England sees Southgate split the England team’s goals into three acts – synonymous with many a play or story that we may have seen or read – Southgate’s aim being a tournament win for the England team in the World Cup 2022.
The psychological demands of the players, and their time spent with psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (portrayed by Dervla Kirwan) was at the forefront for large chunks of the play. The players air their fears – of failing, of not making the squad, of not being deemed worthy of wearing the England shirt by fans. Grange herself played sport to a high level, and Kirwan’s representation of her was undoubtedly close to the mark; not only someone that understands the pressure of top level sport, but also the pain of losing, and the anxiety that comes with agreeing to take a penalty.
The real action begins at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where England won on penalties against Colombia – their first penalty shootout win in 22 years, before being knocked out by Croatia in the semi-finals.
We’re then treated to the utter heartache that was the final of Euro 2020 versus Italy…played in 2021. Of course, to Harry Kane (Will Close), the idea of this match being played a year late was ‘very confusing’, much to the delight of the audience. Close was utterly fantastic, and brought on countless laughs (mainly at his expense), throughout the entirety of the production. Kane’s penalty miss against France during the Qatar World Cup saw the England team head back to the U.K. far sooner than they hoped, followed by his upset and internal suffering.
Act 3…well that’s still ongoing. Working through the pain of losing. The strength of taking a penalty under pressure. And the importance of being a team. Supporting each other through a mountain of situations – Raheem Sterling suffering racism at the hands of home fans, Kane being threatened if he wore a rainbow armband in Qatar, and players dealing with their own personal demons.
Es Devlin’s set design was simple yet hugely effective, the glowing oval above the stage reminiscent of Wembley Stadium’s arch. The on-screen graphics encaptured the history of the England team perfectly, showcasing important moments through the past years, from 1966, to today.
Joseph Fiennes as Southgate was an inspired choice, with Fiennes truly becoming the England manager, not only through his words, but through his mannerisms and his thoughtfulness.
Although Southgate’s Act 3 ends without the men winning a major tournament, Graham takes natural delight in reminding us that our Lionesses overcame this feat just last year. And whilst the Three Lions are still waiting, the team spirit and belief within the on-stage camp were evident.
So who knows… with Euro 2024 just around the corner, the cast of Dear England may give our boys that last boost to really believe that this time, it’s truly coming home.
Written by Luisa Gottardo