Review - Dear England
Prince Edward Theatre
Playing until 13th January 2024
Writer: James Graham
Director: Rupert Goold
Set Designer: Es Devlin
Movement Directors: Ellen Kane, Hannes Langold
Dear England follows the story of the English football team after the resignation of Sam Allardyce and appointment of Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) as the caretaker manager in 2016. In addition to physical training and strategies, Southgate also promotes the wellbeing of the team, helping the players to develop their story on their journey to the 2022 World Cup.
Centred around Southgate’s narratives, this play explores the England players’ interactions with each other, and the cultural resistance to change among senior management. With the help of psychologist, Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan), Southgate was able to start building cohesiveness and positivity within the team, explore the pressure that comes with representing an entire country under the watchful gaze of millions of people from around the world. James Graham’s script also provides some insights into England’s desperation to win.
Fiennes demonstrate finesse in the way he tackles Southgate’s character, who evolves from been unclear on what is missing to a visionary that values the psyche of his players. Despite the seriousness and the pressure on Southgate, Fiennes is still able to incorporate subtle elements of humour. The players are largely explored as an ensemble in this play, with moments of individuality. Even though I am not well versed in football, I have at least glimpsed snippets of some of the players on screen to have a basic grasp of their demeanours.
The actors have done their character justice, Will Close in particular, perfectly captures Harry Kane’s less speech pattern, adding to the sincerity of his speech to this team and the emotional devastation following England’s defeat in the 2022 World Cup. Graham’s script also provides some of the characters with their own development, such as the reason why Dele (Lewis Shepherd) stopped having surname of match shirts and his disconnection with his family, and Raheem Sterling (Kel Matsena) speaking up about racism toward black football players. While the additional layer to the players’ characterisation is welcomed, the impact of these is lessened without insights into the respective individual’s background, such as Dele’s family problems, “adoption”, abuse and drug use.
The script is remarkably well developed to ensure that there is at least some context to ensure the meaning and significance of football rules, terminologies and history are not lost to novices, including myself. In this sense, the content of this play is highly accessible. Although the outcomes of the matches depicted are well known, I suspect those who don’t follow football closely, or those who are not avid England fans, will not know precisely which player scored in the penalties; thus, those who are less familiar with the matches will have this suspense added to their theatre experience. Even though the premise of this play is about football, nationalism is also at the heart of the story. Satirical versions of Prime Ministers Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss make their appearance in this production to weave in their political agenda as they provide words of encouragement to the English team.
Es Devlin’s set design is exceptional, which uses a giant oval ring light positioned above a circular rotating stage, this creates the outline of a football stadium. With projectors at the back of the stage, the set is also able to show historical football events and also close up expressions of particular characters on broadcast, bringing a small part of the live football experience to the stage. For a play about football, a ball has barely made it to the stage, with majority of the scorings communicated through players’ kicking/headbutting actions with background sound effects. The rather basic choreography with the occasional delay in the sound effect following a goal also dampen the excitement to some of the monumental moments in football history.
Using football as the premise, Dear England marvellously incorporates additional elements, including nationalism, racism and the pressure of taking on the burden and expectations of a nation. This is an exceptionally crafted play that has opened up the less well-known dimensions of football to both football aficionados and novices.