5 stars out of 5
Dear England: James Graham’s ode to the beautiful game feels even more epic in its new home
By Claire Allfree
“I suppose one of my main goals… is to get people smiling again,” a diffident Gareth Southgate says near the start of James Graham’s smash hit play about Southgate’s revolutionary tenure. It’s corny to say it, but that’s precisely what Graham manages to do too in this state-of-the-nation parable which transfers effortlessly to the West End this week after a triumphant run at the National Theatre. Stuffed with outsized characters, smart one-liners and an astute understanding of national myth-making, it channels the story of Southgate and his reboot of the English footballing mentality into a theatrical spectacle as uplifting as any England victory.
This is not Graham’s best play. It’s too long, its points are sometimes obvious. You wonder what the notoriously private Southgate, who gave the play his blessing, might make of the way Graham rams home his infamous 1996 missed penalty as a metaphor for the country’s broken psyche and struggle to reckon with failure and loss. But ably abetted by Rupert Goold’s fast-moving, extremely touching production, it also powerfully reproduces the agonising psychodrama of the English national team by casting the audience as England fans. It deftly bottles the primal euphoria of an England win and the complicated patriotism bound up in it. It knowingly reflects back the blunt-headed theatre of the terraces – every foreign character, for example, from the manager of Panama to Sven-Goran Eriksson, is given an exaggerated foreign accent. Yet it also casts the beautiful game as the stuff of Shakespeare, and Southgate as the bearer of all our dreams of nationhood, be it through the nifty reference to “heavy is the head that wears the crown” or the fleeting chat between Southgate and Lloyd Hutchinson’s bluff physio, just before before the finals of the 2020 Euros, that seems to nod to Henry V.
Joseph Fiennes is just terrific as Southgate, nailing his uneven speech patterns and the way he stands like a coat hanger bent slightly out of shape, his nervy watchfulness and his unswerving faith in decency and kindness. Will Close as Harry Kane lets us laugh at his slow way of talking and lack of obvious charisma, before, in the aftermath of that missed penalty against France, stealing our hearts. Amid the whirligig theatricality, telling details stand out: the quiet nobility of Eric Dier (Ryan Whittle) for example, who bows out of the team because not to be in it is the most useful thing he can do. Mainly though, Graham allows us both to wonder at and participate in the unhinged delirium of it all. The fans in the pub from whose perspective we watch the Euros, dressed as crusaders and Morris dancers, singing to a song about curry – it’s a fabulous bone-headed carnival of Englishness. And he reminds us too how low we can sink – the racist abuse suffered by the team’s black players hangs stubbornly in the air. Yet against a fracturing sense of national identity, Dear England makes manifest the everyday glue that binds us – be it the Grandstand theme tune; Gary Lineker’s crisps advert; Theresa May’s dance moves; the epic question of why we care so much. God knows what the tourists will make of it. No matter. This is a rare and special thing – a play that dares to let us feel not so bad about being us.