REVIEW: The Red Lion (Trafalgar Studios) ★★★★

First of all an important disclaimer: I’m not a football fan. Overwhelmingly so. I’ve walked out on pubs and boyfriends in order to avoid the beautiful game. Happily, you don’t need to be one to enjoy Patrick Marber’s 2011 play The Red Lion, revived here by Live Theatre following a run at the National in 2015.

The story kicks off (sorry) at an English non-league club, and our backdrop is a neglected looking changing room. It genuinely smells like Deep Heat and socks in there for full authenticity, so be warned. Jimmy Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson) is the bullish club manager, driven more by self-interest and ego than a love of the game. Allusions are made to a broken marriage and we know he’s got debts. The club’s chances of promotion could represent his own way out of trouble.

Yates (John Bowler) is the kit man. He used to play for the club himself, back when football wasn’t the grotesque cash-fest it is nowadays and ‘WAG’ was a byword for wit (ironic, really). Yates believes in the beauty of the game and its power to bring people together. His hopefulness runs counter to Kidd’s cynicism, but Kidd’s the boss. Perhaps we could venture that you need both to make it work – the purist and the business-brain. It’s talented new player Jordan (Dean Bone) who is sent to test that, and the play becomes a wrestle between competing ideologies, for ‘the boy’, the club and what football is meant to be.

Interestingly, Marber drew inspiration for The Red Lion from his own experience running Lewes FC as part of a community takeover group. This is football, but you can apply the theme to current debates around public space, housing and healthcare among others and the question is the same – when do community assets become business concerns, and what harm takes place when they do?

Masculinity is held up to the light here, as well. Tompkinson is superb as the unreconstructed Kidd, whose well-honed aggressiveness hides a loveless childhood. He takes the character from rampaging ego to desperate fragility in moments, and the audience is heart-in-mouth with him. John Bowler is equally excellent as the sad and slow-moving Yates, who grips onto the club like its a life-raft. The final words of a frenetic 90 minutes are his, and it’s a touching note on which to leave the changing room – despite the smell.

Reviewed by April Delaney
Photo: Mark Douet