Review: DEAR ENGLAND, Prince Edward Theatre

Exquisite performance by Joseph Fiennes and a winning team in a tale of football, fear and England finding a sense of itself

By: Oct. 24, 2023
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Review: DEAR ENGLAND, Prince Edward Theatre
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Dear EnglandNot all football transfers go smoothly ­– think of Harry Maguire’s unhappy switch from Leicester City to Manchester United in 2019. But relocating James Graham’s exhilarating Dear England after a successful run at its home at The National Theatre to the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre was a wise decision. Graham’s football-loving tour de force more than holds its own in the grand, 1,727-seater space.

A clever and thought-provoking play, it tells the story of gentle, understated Gareth Southgate becoming caretaker manager of the England football team in 2016. Joseph Fiennes nails his voice, stance and quiet power in a magnificent way.

Dear England

The powers that be regard Gareth as an interim safe pair of hands, until he starts sharing awkward thoughts about how something’s gone wrong in England – “we’re stuck and unable to move forward” – and the need to ask uncomfortable questions about well, everything. “What the fuck have we done?” asks Greg Dyke, then chairman of the Football Association.

Undaunted, Gareth brings in extreme culture change – wanting to “train our bodies upstairs as well as downstairs”. (Player Dele Alli offers a witty reply: “I’m more of a bungalow.”)  

Gareth employs psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (a caring and intelligent Dervla Kirwan), who helps the team face their fears and talk about their anxieties – on and off the pitch. Coach Mike Webster (conveyed by an excellent Paul Thornley) bristles against this “woke” attitude, favouring a more physical, masculine training regime. Southgate’s new tactics begin to pay off though.

One of the worst fears, however, belongs to Gareth. The elephant in the dressing room is the agony of Gareth missing a penalty kick at Wembley in 1996, knocking England out of the Euros. His trauma underscores the entire production, overlayed with the new young team’s own traumas – and the wider traumas of a damaged nation.

The good news for those who know little about football is you don’t need to comprehend the offside rule (those demos moving round Salt and Pepper shakers never worked for me) in order to enjoy the show.

Director Rupert Goold ramps up the tension as the players progress through various tournaments, leading towards the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A clock literally ticks down at the top of designer Es Devlin’s fantastic set – an immense, circle of light dominating a revolving stage dressed with football lockers where players’ shirts are reverently displayed.

Dear England

Es’s creative efforts are beautifully lit by Jon Clark and enhanced by a sensational soundscape by sound designers Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons (the echoes of footballs bouncing off heads and crashing into nets are still in my head). Accolades also need to go to movement directors Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf for the balletic dance-like football sequences.

Also, this play is one of the funniest I’ve seen in the West End this year. We warm to all of the characters, from Josh Barrow’s exuberant goalie Jordan Pickford, to slow-speaking and unlikely captain Harry Kane (a truly hilarious performance by Will Close), and Kal Matsena’s rightfully angry Raheem Sterling, who has to deal with ongoing racism.

At one point, Gareth unfurls an English flag and asks what it means to the young men on the team. The answers are complex, such as Jamaican Bukayo Saka (played by an engaging Denzel Baidoo) saying, “I like my flag. But some waving it don’t think we should be wearing the shirt.” Graham’s ability to shift from light to dark without being didactic is second to none.

In addition, Graham deftly weaves in members of the public who get caught up in It’s Coming Home! fever, such as a delivery driver, fish and chip shop owner, postman and a wedding couple. They have their own views on how the beautiful game should be played.

There are also satirical, past parades of earlier England managers advising Gareth on how to handle the job and our rapid turnover of recent prime ministers, followed by Brexit and then Covid. England’s women’s team win the Euros in 2022 (to applause and cheers from women in the audience), rubbing salt into the wounds when Gareth’s team lose in the quarter final to France in Qatar after Harry Kane misses a penalty kick.

It all comes down to storytelling, says Gareth. He urges each of his players to tell his own story. Gareth ends up writing his story in a plea for calm and behaving sensibly in an open letter to the public in 2021 (which gives us the title of the play). He emphasises the “fragility of life”, something that is much bigger than football. At the end of the day, it’s all about “how we conduct ourselves and how we bring people together”.

And Dear England certainly does that. It shoots and scores, hits the back of the net – and joins an audience together in an experience worthy of a win at Wembley.

Dear England runs at the Prince Edward Theatre until January 13

Photo credits: Marc Brenner