The Red Lion
Trafalgar Studios, London
Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion has never been a play just about football. Instead he uses the Cinderella world of the semi-professional game as a canvas on which to explore masculinity, loyalty and morality. And the choices men make every day in order not only to survive, but to come out on top.
Of course, football as metaphor is almost as old as the game itself, but it has seldom felt so real. That’s due not only to its setting in a non-league locker room, devoid of glamour, girls and goals, but the supremely talented cast, which spans three generations, each personified by very different characters.
The play opens with elderly kit man and local legend Yates, (a mournful John Bowler) looking as though he has spent a lifetime ironing the same shirts. His drudgery is interrupted by manager Jimmy Kidd – Stephen Tompkinson (pictured) is utterly convincing as a man who realises the whistle is about to blow – blaming everything from the referee to the state of the pitch for the fact that he is managing the arse end of nowhere, when he clearly feels he should be glad-handing José Mourinho instead.
You can almost smell the stench of disappointment coming from the discarded kit that litters the benches as Kidd patronises Yates, the failure he is afraid of becoming, without realising that, like all obsessives, he has set his own goal posts too close together.
As is usual in morality plays, salvation lies with the young and the innocent – in this case star striker Jordan (Dean Bone) whose abilities on the pitch might yet deliver Kidd the riches he craves, and so clearly feels he deserves. The only problem with his cunning plan is that Jordan, a born-again Christian, is neither innocent, nor prepared to play along. “You all think I’m something special. I’m not,” he despairs.
A Faustian wrangle for the boy’s soul ensues as Kidd’s plans to turn his own fortunes around by using Jordan are thwarted by Yates, who still possesses some of the steel that almost – but not quite – took him to the top of the game all those years ago.
The dynamic between Kidd, who displays an almost Fagin like obesiance towards his star player, and the obdurate Yates (Bowler is the personifaction of a man who knows suprises are seldom welcome) provides the “Will he? Won’t he?” tension on which the play’s denouement depends, but it is the performances of all three men – and in particular the brilliant Tompkinson, who delivers both comedy and tragedy with a barely concealed, always believable fury– that provides the real crux of Max Roberts’ and Live Theatre’s stand-out production.