Review: The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios 2

There’s a clip from The IT Crowd in which Moss and Roy, in a bid to impress some new guy friends, have ended up at a football match. “Hooray,” says Moss unenthusiastically. “He’s kicked the ball.”

I must confess this is pretty much how I feel about football (though I might have used another IT Crowd gem – “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” – at work a few times, just for fun). But I also know that for many people it’s more than a sport; it’s a way of life. There’s even a certain theatricality about it: 22 players performing for an excited audience who are all thoroughly invested in a happy outcome – for their side, anyway. And I can’t deny feeling a grudging respect for the fans who give up their time and money to devotedly follow their team come rain or shine, good times or bad.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

Patrick Marber took that devotion to another level a few years ago, when he became the joint owner of his local football team to save it from bankruptcy. And this passion is both the inspiration for and the central theme of The Red Lion, in which three men see their fortunes rise and fall in the sweaty confines of a players’ changing room. Kidd is the wheeler dealer manager of an unnamed semi-professional football team – relocated under director Max Roberts to the North East of England. Yates is a local legend; once a star player, then a manager, now he’s the kit man, but still as loyal as ever to the club he loves. And then along comes Jordan, a star player in the making. Both Kidd and Yates have plans for the young man’s future – but with one of them driven by money and the other by honour, there’s no way those plans can ever coincide.

While Patrick Connellan’s locker room set is undeniably impressive in its attention to detail (you can even smell the Deep Heat), the play’s real power lies with its cast of three incredible actors, each of whom brings something different to the table. Dean Bone is a picture of youthful naivety and helplessness as Jordan, a pawn referred to most often by the other two men as simply “the kid”, while John Bowler’s fragile Yates speaks his lines with a loving, almost hypnotic caress that can make even a non-believer appreciate football’s poetry. Last but definitely not least, Stephen Tompkinson gives a powerhouse performance as Kidd – one minute he has us roaring with laughter, the next he’s apoplectic with fury, and the next broken by the threat of losing everything that matters to him. All three actors know how to deliver a funny line, and do it brilliantly, but it’s the moments when they face the possibility of life outside the four walls they’ve come to call home that really make an impact.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

It might help to be a football fan – or at least a little bit in the know – to keep up with the play’s fast-paced dialogue as the three characters dissect matches and haggle over transfer deals. But the good news for the rest of us is that you don’t really need to know anything about football to enjoy this play. At its heart, The Red Lion is a story about the complex relationships between three men from different generations, with nothing in common but their love of the game. And that love – poured into every line of the script and felt in each moment of three excellent performances – is more than a little infectious; I reckon even Moss would be impressed.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉