james debate
james debate

Saturday 4 November 2023

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Joseph Fiennes
Theatre National/Prince Edward

dear england gareth southgate harry kane football world cup joseph fiennes james graham rupert goold national prince edward theatre best 2023

Of all the figures that one could have chosen from Britain's extensive pantheon of folk heroes, England manager Gareth Southgate might seem like an odd choice to make the subject of a theatrical production. 

Southgate was a prominent footballer of the 1990s, most notable for missing the penalty that cost England a place in the final of Euro 96. After many years of middle management in the national set up, he has more recently become known for his impressive work, in turning England into a respectable football team, including guiding the side to a first major tournament semi-final since 1996, and a first major tournament final since 1966.

But throughout his career, Southgate has shied away from the limelight. He's not the flashiest, nor the most charismatic. Even now, at his greatest prominence, the clear preference is to not be the focus of attention, deferring credit, instead, to the accomplishments of his players.

So the choice to create a major stage production about Southgate, before his tenure at England has even come to an end, no less, is an intriguing one. But then, that's what Dear England is about: challenging our preconceptions of leadership, of traditional masculinity. 

Penned by the great James Graham, acclaimed for his work in theatre and TV, which includes the productions This House, Ink, Quiz, and Best of Enemies. Dear England portraits Southgate as a reformer, a man who took the youthful trauma of his own playing career and used it as the basis for a new school of sports management, one that concerns itself as much with psychological conditioning as physical, and respects its athletes, not just as physical tools, but as flawed humans. In doing so, he comes up against the established order of old boys and the traditional image of stoic manliness.

But in classic Graham fashion, Dear England casts its gaze wider than just telling a dramatic sports story and looks at football's role as the national pastime. This madness and obsession that sweeps the nation every four years, that inspires such intense jubilation, as well as the deepest bile that society can muster.

The greatest compliment that I can pay Dear England is that if you don't "get" football, or why it inspires such passion, you will by the end of this play. I know this because I went to see the play with my wife, who cares not one whit about football, and is not even from this country. But by the end, she was so caught up in the drama and excitement that she wanted to cheer as its sporting events unfolded. While Dear England has a lot of worthwhile things to say, it is perhaps this that is the most impressive, that it does such a superlative job of capturing what makes this game into such an obsession, and inspires the emotions that so deeply weigh on both fan and player.

We've already discussed the writing, which ranks amongst James Graham's best work. It's clever and deeply funny stuff that does an impressive job of capturing all the dynamics around English football and coming up with a sort of "unifying theory" to explain England's fortunes on the pitch, and the change of mindset that has come in with Southgate. This is, of course, a heavily dramatised interpretation of events that streamlines and bends fact in order to make for a more satisfying narrative, and it is undeniably weird to portray this story as a beginning, middle and end to a career that is still ongoing. But it is undeniably effective, so long as you don't try to view this as a literal, factual telling of events.

Much of Dear England's success can also be attributed to the direction. Rupert Goold is, of course, one of England's great theatre directors. Current artistic director of the Almeida and former head of the Headlong company, whose credits are numerous and brilliant. There's a flamboyance and boldness to the production, which incorporates music, singalongs, and big spectacle to drive home the scale of its themes, but Goold also knows when to go intimate. Those moments of vulnerability with the cast are some of the highlights of the show.

Massive credit needs to go to the cast. The lead, Joseph Fiennes, is brilliant. His transformation into Southgate borders on uncanny, right down to the mannerisms, the twitchiness, his manner of speaking. The likeness is really quite astonishing. Yet it never feels like imitation or parody. Fiennes captures the man's awkwardness, his insecurities, but also his sincerity and almost accidental charm. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. Will Close as Harry Kane, Gunnar Cauthery as Gary Lineker, Josh Barrow as Jordan Pickford. They all do a truly remarkable job of capturing the likeness of their subject in a way that always feels sincere, with performances that blend comedy with drama effectively.

There are pacing issues here. The second act is noticeably less actionpacked than the first, not helped by the fact that real life simply hasn't lent itself to a particularly satisfying ending. It's clear that the focus has been on the early days of Southgate's tenure, with most of the supporting cast built around that first core of players, and fewer of the newer squad included. This does have the effect of limiting the scope for character drama in these later tournaments.

Dear England is a wonderful play. If you love football and theatre, then this is a dream combination of the two. But even if you don't care about the sport, this is superlative work that will keep you hooked. I really can't recommend it highly enough.

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