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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

There’s a sacramental thrill as you enter the NT’s Olivier: both sci-fi and ancient Greek. James Graham Dear England, directed by Rupert Goold, is like that: tackling something seen as almost too sacred, at once transcendent for many; but so impacted by nationalist hubris it’s become sclerotic. We enter the game at a historically pivotal moment. Where English football will never be the same. Outstanding.

Directed by Rupert Goold, Set Es Devlin,  Costume Design Evie Gurney, Lighting Designer John Clark, Co-Movement Directors Ellen Kane, Hannes Langolf, Composer Hannah Peel, Co-Sound Designers Dan Balfour, Tom Gibbons, Additional Music Max Perryment, Video Designer Ash J Woodward,

Casting Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, Dialect Coach Richard Ryder, Company Voice Work Cathleen McCarron and Shereen Ibrahim, Associate Director Elin Schofield, Associate Set Designer Will Brown, Associate Lighting Designer Ben Jacobs.

Till August 11th


There’s a sacramental thrill as you enter the NT’s Olivier: Es Devlin’s design echoes the clean sweep of the revolve in gun-mental grey, with a gleaming hoop above it, both sci-fi and ancient Greek. James Graham Dear England, directed by Rupert Goold, is like that: tackling something seen as almost too sacred, at once transcendent for many; but so impacted by nationalist hubris it’s become sclerotic.

At the same time – as often with Graham – we enter the game at a historically pivotal moment. Where English football will never be the same. Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) edges from manager of the under-21s, as caretaker after Sam Allardyce (Sean Gilder) is forced to quit after winning one game.

Graham’s peculiar gift – amongst others – is to take historical antagonists at a point of maximum tension, to prove how much they might reconcile. It’s there from the start in This House, it’s given a posthumous twist in Best of Enemies.

Here the antagonist is uniquely numinous. In a word, us. It’s why Southgate addressed his open letters ‘Dear England’ tackling abuse and racism: toxins in a raging disappointment projected onto England players; which he feels paralyses them with fear.

Channelling a nation’s aspirations here shows just how its poisons burn through its temporary gods. What’s so extraordinary about Southgate is how he took on a national culture to stop this: what he achieves for his players has him called by many a better leader of the opposition than Keir Starmer. Graham doesn’t mention this: he elides wider commentary. But you see Graham’s attracted to the arena of such leadership.

Crowded with ensemble and multi-roling interviewers – Graham etches a peripheral crowd of  people – the scale of expectation is sketched: from three prime ministers through a wedding couple betting with their priest on England’s chances, to a gallimaufry of lawyers through to roadworkers being interviewed. Shout out for Evie Gurney’s dazzling array of costume designs, yielding their apotheosis in the quick-change suits flicked off by England players, revealing strips.

Fiennes – despite Southgate’s avowed focus on the players – has to be central. Inhabiting a nervy fidgety figure often on the periphery of the stage, sometimes downstage centre as if giving up his theatrical power, Fiennes’ character backs into the limelight.

He inhabits the stillness around which the co-movement directors Ellen Kane, Hannes Langolf weave a mesmerising ballet of players – a word Southgate uses – and an ever-active video design by Ash J Woodward, using that loop as score-board, aide-memoire and back-projections of everything from historic footage to emerging skylines.

It’s hard to overestimate how alone Southgate is, how perilous his reputation, like all managers. Graham’s brilliance lies in how he makes his protagonist glimpse, then grasp the truth of his revolutionary approach, and Fiennes manages this consummately, in edging his voice, veiling it, swallowing it even. It’s a mesmerising portrait of conditional self-belief, carrying the wound of 1996, his own missed penalty, something Graham keeps as a toxin of Southgate’s own in telling moments.

Gilder’s just one of the multi-roling cast who portray a lineal descent of challenges: After Allardyce, Gilder’s another two managers (Capello, then Panama’s) then morphs into benign Physio Phil, quietly sympathetic oppo of old-style coach Mike Webster (Paul Thornley) who at crucial stages fails to undermine Southgate’s approach.

Those who inhabit the nearest to antagonism Fiennes endures are sceptical older white men in power Southgate tries winning over. There’s memorable contributions from avuncular, old-school sceptic Greg Clarke (John Hodgkinson) morphing to Infantino in Qtar attacking Southgate’s ethos and Matt LeTissier as well as that priest. Greg Dyke (Tony Turner) also briefly Steve Holland and  Graham Taylor play sceptical good cops.

But most, it’s Southgate’s bringing psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) to address his own part-articulated vision that allows Graham to prompt questions. McKee’s the nearest to an ally, friend, and interrogator Fiennes has. She’s also radical. McKee’s Grange shows a forthright but sensitive approach yielding results. Her relaxed, alert persona continually probes Fiennes’ Southgate. Eventually there’s a crisis as the story of three parts Southgate wants to tell of an England taking six years to win, gets upended by the 2021 Euros landing on home turf. Departing from his own script brings the ever-probing McKee into conflict with Fiennes too. It’s in many ways the heart of the play. But.

Naturally it’s who they work with together that makes for the most joyous, energised movement in this space. Goold and Graham ensure everyone’s individualised, brought on and commented on with key words. It’s a patient build, the deliberate dialogue at dramatic odds with the velocity of physical moments. Though Gunnar Cauthery is mainly Gary Lineker commenting from the sidelines, he’s also gutted Wayne Rooney, dismissed gently by Southgate.

It’s a subtle prelude to the way Southgate feels he has to drop some of his new talent like Dele Alli (Lewis Shepherd); it’s wrenching. After the 2018 Russia World Cup, where Grange has helped everyone – including Southgate – confront the penalty-shoot-out curse, that hits hard.

The gradual melt of players from wounded masculinity to men openly talking of fear is beautifully handled. Marcus Rashford (Darragh Hand) inevitably leads this charge, in a believably radiant performance. There’s initial resistance from straight-talking Jordan Pickford (Josh Barrow), Jordan Henderson (Will Fletcher) and larky Bukayo Saka (Ebenezer Gyau), and each player’s winning-over is traced with touching, occasionally funny results – with McKee, with each other. Harry Maguire (Adam Hugill), the self-possessed Newcastle player surprises by how quickly he adapts.

Harry Kane (Will Close) is a watchful, never guying study in a tongue-tied player who gets it more deeply than most, using a 1966 dance to show how gesture, letting go is key. Eric Dier (Ryan Whittle) child of two FIFA members, relates how his early privilege sets him apart; his own crushed feelings on missing a penalty are memorable. Raheem Sterling (Kel Matsena) is opposite, and like Gyau’s Saka, relates the ugly racism that makes three lions and imperialist crusades distasteful. As does Jadan Sancho (Albert Magashi). Graham’s treatment of how these latter two with Rashford are treated by their team-mates after the shoot-out contrasts his silent treatment of abuse: he lets players react in their own ‘Dear England’ moments.

Alex Scott (Crystal Condie) is a refreshing contrast, both as victorious footballer (surely there’s a play there) and commentator, tripping up male commentators, and inhabiting muppet versions of two prime ministers (hardly needed, even the tearful May, let alone a brief full mop of Johnson). After all the stakes are higher than what passes for politics. With strong ensemble work from Nick Barclay, Tashinga Bepete, Bill Caple, Will Harrison-Wallace, Miranda Heath (the betting Bride), this swirling 23-strong cast never lets energy, let alone balls drop.

There’s much mimicking of that with excellent sound-synching from co-sound designers Dan Balfour, Tom Gibbons, two fine solo songs from composer Hannah Peel, with Max Perryment supplying orchestral elements marrying the finale of Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No 3 with drums; and less esoterically a snatch of Elgar’s In the South at a glutinous patriotic moment.

Luckily those are guyed by a player singing ‘God save the Queen’ instead of King. Humour’s written right through, and though the struggle remains and the success painfully provisional, you feel an epic of hearts and minds has unfolded. In its way, on any terms, outstanding.