With the Women’s World Cup Football tournament around the corner (Thursday, July 20) and the recent powerful mental health revelations by one-time England star Dele Alli splashed all over the papers, this play goes deep into the psyche of what it means to be English…
IF YOU THINK this play is primarily about football, think again please.
It is essentially about leadership, changing a toxic culture from within, and creating a story and narrative people believe in and to which they respond.
The psychologist character of (the real) Dr Pippa Grange – played superbly by Gina McKee – has a lot to do with that.
There are a lot of real people in this play and a few that are composites and do not actually exist.
It works regardless of whether you know anything about football or the real people it depicts. Its structure and presentation are simply wonderful and carry you along whether you know this story intrinsically as many England fans (myself included) would – or not.
It is a triumph and a brilliant dissection of what has been going wrong for a long time – until a new manager in the form of Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) is appointed and starts to work from a quiet different script.
It is interesting that playwright James Graham starts with the departure of another England manager, Sam Allardyce (Will Fletcher).
Known to many in the game as Big Sam, his stint was short-lived – after he was ‘exposed’ as talking loosely about how you get round some transfer rules and the like, he was more or less forced to resign. Really, there is a tragic play in it – northern working class lad made good and brought down by those who couldn’t stomach an England manager whose footballing style was (possibly) a little basic – but could well have been effective – and was a proud Englishman and chuffed to his toenails to be in the job.
What is it we England fans want? Success at any cost? A team that plays beautiful football but loses in the latter rounds of major competitions and maintains a sort of dignity and is some form of paragon of the world’s most popular sport – and admired and reviled in different quarters and equal measures, for it?
What is great is that Graham actually addresses all this – in fact, what we need to say is that Southgate himself did too – in print, just before the Euros football tournament in 2021 here.
Southgate penned a letter, ‘Dear England’, addressing what the team meant to him and why it matters to millions of us England fans.
Graham obviously lifts some of the letter’s themes and weaves a very believable narrative around it all.
At the heart of this play, we have Southgate himself – played brilliantly by Fiennes.
He rightly identifies the issue – despite having a wealth of talent, England have failed to win anything and after 1996 and a home semi-final Euro game against Germany which the team lost on penalties, England have not featured much in the latter stages of big tournaments – until the 2018 World Cup and Southgate being in charge – when the team were beaten by Croatia 2-1 in extra time in Russia.
Of course, 1996 features heavily, especially at the beginning – Southgate played in that match and missed a crucial penalty after extra-time, which led to Germany winning the shootout 6-5 and progressing to the final and winning Euro 1996 at Wembley.
It’s a powerful backdrop – Southgate, the failure as a player for missing that penalty…now the successful manager seeking redemption – you couldn’t really make up such a narrative arc.
Graham’s play is about the culture of the team and its relationship to us – the fans and the country at large.
At one point, the England flag of St George is unfurled and one of the black players – Raheem Sterling (Kel Metsena) we think it is, says that it is a symbol for some racists – as well as being an emblem of pride. In the play, Southgate (Fiennes) asks the players what they make of the flag and this is just one of several responses.
Essentially ‘Dear England’ takes you on a journey from June 2016 through to December 2022, and the most recent World Cup.
Told on a relatively bare, somewhat oval looking shaped, stage with commentary and interviews by real people such as Gary Lineker (Josh Barrow) and Alex Scott (Crystal Condie) and with familiar terrace sounds, and all, this is a play that holds your attention.
Funny, poignant, reflective – it is in many ways of a state of England play and if you want to understand anything about the conflicting and sometimes confusing psyche the UK and its constituent nations exhibit (at times), this is not a bad place to start.
Let’s not tempt the question, just how woke is Southgate, to fan the flames of his dumbest critics who think it explains why we still haven’t won anything! (Sailesh Ram).
Main picture: Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes)
All pictures: National Theatre/©MarcBrenner
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
‘Dear England’ by James Graham (June 20) until August 11 – The National Theatre London SE1 9PX