DEAR ENGLAND at the Prince Edward Theatre
“This is a football play for people who don’t necessarily like football”
James Graham is writing history in real time. This open-ended chronicle of Gareth Southgate’s turnaround of the England Men’s football team’s footballing culture has built a rightful reputation as a modern sporting and theatrical epic.
Graham is known more for his political writing (including Olivier nominated This House and Best of Enemies), and here transports the debate chamber to the St George’s Park locker room over a six year period. Unexpectedly awarded the England job after Sam Allardyce’s indiscretions, Southgate steps up to first team coach, and sets about fixing what he sees is lacking from the England set up. This involves what one of the old-school physios dismisses as ‘soft stuff’, including introducing psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (played by a vibrant Dervla Kirwan) to change the team culture.
Thus starts the battle between the old and the new, the internal and the external, the brain and the brawn.
The title refers to an open letter Southgate wrote in 2021, when he eschewed de rigeur social media to connect to England fans in his own way, whilst encouraging his team to find out what playing for England means for them. The second act of the play in particular explores the pressures on the team as they struggle to define themselves against traditional expectations.
Given this focus on the internality, there’s (for some theatre-goers, thankfully) not too much exploration of the minutiae of football. No-one will be tested about the intricacies of the offside rule. Indeed, there is a lovely section where Southgate sets out his philosophy as a vision across three acts. The most football you get are the crucial penalty shootouts. These again switch the focus from the act of kicking to the mind behind the boot. Director Rupert Goold changes the set up of these throughout the piece, highlighting the churning psychology behind each.
“These are played with cartoonish guile by the excellent supporting ensemble”
Above the stage (set design Es Devlin) is a large suspended ring of light, reminiscent of the Wembley Arch and many a footballing logo. The ring also features graphics, at one stage resembling a zoetrope of penalty taking failures past (lighting design Jon Clark and video design Ash J Woodward). The stage itself has concentric rotating circles that add movement to larger crowd sequences, which feature a hilarious cast representing modern Britain, and the England team training sessions which are directed as balletic pieces with music to match.
Initially there are also individual lockers that are moved across the stage, often featuring hanging England football shirts. The first act takes place with a vintage selection, immediately establishing the history that has hung like a yoke, weighed down with that single tournament victory sixty years ago.
As Southgate, Joseph Fiennes is excellent at subtly reminding the audience of this pressure, and the missed penalty that is never far from his mind. His attention to detail of Southgate’s mannerisms is also uncanny. Little gestures, like the single finger scratch below the ear, and vocal fillers are spot on. Will Close as the inarticulate Harry Kane, Griffin Stevens as Harry Maguire, also elicit laughs every time they speak, playing with our tabloid understanding of the players. Kel Matsena also does a great job as Raheem Sterling, whose poignant comments about the racism he faced on the pitch echo on.
Graham can’t resist poking a little fun at the rotating carousel of politicians since 2016 who could take a leaf out of Dr Pippa Grange’s books about failing well. These are played with cartoonish guile by the excellent supporting ensemble, and are greeted with roars from the audience.
The wonderful costumes (Evie Gurney) here help tell the story of time passing. The team England jerseys are replaced between each of the main tournaments and matches, and this attention to detail immediately places you back to the exact pub, settee, or stadium where you were watching that year’s attempt to end the years of hurt.
I really enjoyed the cameos from Crystal Condie playing Alex Scott, the former Lioness and current pundit. Though England’s football history has been centred around the men’s team, you have a feeling the sequel will feature more women.
This is a football play for people who don’t necessarily like football. Just note, you are unlikely to get state-of-the-nation writing this good at your local terraces this weekend.
DEAR ENGLAND at the Prince Edward Theatre
Reviewed on 19th October 2023
by Rosie Thomas
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: