Stuart King

Review: DEAR ENGLAND at Prince Edward Theatre

Joseph Fiennes proves himself something of a shapeshifter in James Graham’s DEAR ENGLAND as he assumes the guise, voice and mannerisms of Gareth Southgate, from his appointment as England’s underestimated caretaker manager, through his time as a waistcoat-clad guru and onwards to Qatar 2022. But this is a play with more on its mind than mere parody.

The cast of Dear England in the West End. Credit Marc BrennerThe cast of Dear England in the West End. Credit Marc Brenner

On Es Devlin’s pared-back revolve set, director Rupert Goold’s troupe of actors gradually peel away the bravado, challenging each other to address the toxic machismo inherent in the national game and grow as a mutually supportive team. But the real target for Graham’s observational eye is Dear England herself — a nation which historically (and hysterically) has demanded so much, yet supported so little when things haven’t gone our way during international competitions. At a time when Netflix’s documentary series about David Beckham is still fresh in the mind, this sold-out summer transfer from the National Theatre is rendered all the more poignant as it examines the national pastime of building-up heroes only to damn them when they fall-short of the imposed hero-worship.

For those who relish the opportunity of reliving the anguish and torment of the national squad’s lamentable penalty shoot-out record, the play proves manna from footballing heaven. As his team gradually assembles around him, Southgate deploys sports psychologist Dr Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan) to help the players and extended team learn to love the game, themselves and each other and leave behind the angst, self-doubt and crippling fear of failure. The cohesive spirit which soon develops ruffles feathers and raises eyebrows in some quarters, but the results are self-evident.

As former Head of People and Team Development at the Football Association, Grange is perhaps responsible more than anyone else for the fundamental growth in understanding around mental well-being and the adoption of psychological resilience techniques in sport over recent years. Much of the play’s comedy centres on her initial introduction to the macho environment of the dressing room and training ground, where her attempts to get players to reduce the bravado and listen to each other, are initially met with scorn and ridicule. But, when racism and xenophobia are displayed at matches, the team finds the strength and support which had previously been missing from successive managers and collectively, they rally and look to the future. By contrast, those who express contempt for anyone taking the knee, soon find themselves on the wrong side of the argument and history.

Each of the now familiar players in the era’s national squad are given moments to shine - most notably Will Close as Harry Kane, but look out for a scene-stealing turn from Josh Barrow as a hyped-up Jordan Pickford in the Euro 2020 competition. The players’ turns are supported by myriad appearances of sporting and other notables including Gary Lineker, Theresa May, Alex Scott, Wayne Rooney, sundry former England managers and the bumbling mess which constitutes Boris Johnson.

Whilst the transfer may have slightly lost a little of the magic of the Olivier staging (you almost felt you were sitting in a stadium for those penalty shoot-outs) this West End transfer remains an absolute must-see for football fans. Dear England plays at the Prince Edward Theatre in Soho and is booking into 2024.