Stuart King

Review: DEAR ENGLAND at National Theatre Olivier

The ubiquitous triumvirate of playwright James Graham, director Rupert Goold and set designer Es Devlin has cast a unified sense of magic over the beautiful game for its latest combined theatrical offering. DEAR ENGLAND plays at the National Theatre and when those moments of collective national nail-biting are replayed and relived on the Olivier stage, they’ll leave audiences with their hearts in their mouths all over again.

Dear EnglandDear England cast at the National Theatre.

Joseph Feinnes proves himself something of a shapeshifter 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. As his team gradually assembles around him, they each learn to grow as individuals and develop a truly cohesive spirit, whilst they are coached and guided by mild-mannered academic Dr Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) on how to lay to rest the weight of national expectation and the trauma it can induce.

An applied psychologist, as 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 met with scorn and jocularity. However when those same team players eventually express their true feelings around the racism and xenophobia displayed at matches, they find their manager and colleagues offering the kind of kindred support which has previously been absent. 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 squad are given moments to shine - most notably Will Close as Harry Kane - and they are in turn supported by myriad appearances of sporting and other notables including Gary Lineker, Theresa May, Alex Scott, Wayne Rooney, sundry former England managers and (a loudly booed) Boris Johnson.

On press night the audience — which appropriately included Ian Wright and David Baddiel — was unanimous in its appreciation of an exceptional and polished performance. As on the pitch, seasoned viewers know when they have witnessed a genuinely impressive collaborative event which has drawn on a finely-honed combination of skill, heart and intellect.

An absolute must-see for football fans, Dear England runs until 11th August and will certainly be a strong candidate for a West End transfer.