Land of hope and failure

Peter Mayo reviews National Theatre staging of James Graham’s Dear England beamed out to Spazju Kreattiv in January and February 2024

Joseph Fiennes and cast of Dear England
Joseph Fiennes and cast of Dear England

Watched the encore of Dear England, by James Graham, at Spazju Kreattiv last Sunday. It is a good play with some excellent acting. The first part was entertaining centering around how Gareth Southgate as new England interim manager and subsequently full manager, following Sam Allardyce's dismissal after only one game, ripped apart the script to change the way England goes about things. This was straight after the debacle in the European Championship against Iceland in 2016 which brought an end to Roy Hodgson's tenure.

It was, over all, especially in the first part before the interval, fast flowing with imaginative settings including a sense of a vast arena through lighting techniques and the locker room hastily arranged within the space. There were also well thought out sound effects such as the thud of a ball being kicked, especially in the penalty shoot outs. Rupert Goold, as director, availed himself of an imaginative set to capture the feelings, in this play, of the average long suffering England fan. There is a misplaced sense of entitlement as though the country which gave the world its modern rules football has a right to reach some promised land. I find this pretty colonial in the thinking, unless the scriptwriter intended this to be part of the delusion.

Humour abounds and caricatures are there to be enjoyed. These include politicians such as Theresa May and mop haired Boris Johnson. The fortunes of England's national football team.are intertwined with those of the nation in the immediate post Brexit era. The second part struck me as being less entertaining, though many events spanning 2018-2022 were crammed in such a short period. These included the penalty heartbreak against Italy in England's first final since 1966 and the subsequent elimination at the quarter final stage in Qatar through another penalty miss, this time during the 90 minutes against France and by Harry Kane of all people. The penalty jinx hovers over the play and all this despite the intense preparation by Southgate in this aspect of the game, including the engagement of a top notch psychologist ( Pippa). Southgate is constantly haunted by his miss from the spot in sudden death against Germany at Euro 1996. All is seen against the background of this heartbreaking miss by 'the gaffer' who wants to be called plain Gareth. This is in a bid to create a team spirit, allegedly previously lacking as players split into cliques featuring those picked from the same club sides...your Uniteds, Liverpools, Spurs. It was by and large a sequence of failure, often interspersed with that rare glorious defeat.

The failure from the penalty spot at the final act in the 2021 European Championship came about after the false dawn of winning a penalty shoot out against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup just as, a fact ignored in this play, Southgate 's miss came soon after England reached the semifinal in 1996 by getting the better of Spain on penalties.

There were some terrific performances notably by Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate and by Will Close as Harry Kane. The former with his trimmed beard was virtually Southgate's clone. You had to remind yourself it was Fiennes and not Southgate, himself, on stage - clone both in appearance and voice. He captured all his mannerisms. Will Close also succeeded in emulating Kane in speech. Of course, accuracy is besides the point in a play or on screen. This can be all about faction. There were caricatures which added spice to the spectacle, especially through the figures of Harry Macguire and Fabio Capello. And of course Sven Goran Eriksson (Gunnar Cauthery who also played Gary Lineker, Wayne Rooney and Boris Johnson), well versed in world football, was made to sound as bland as ever, a blandness which belies his terrific tactical knowledge of the game. Boris Johnson, dishevelled with the arrogance of a member of the elite, public school boy and Oxbridge educated, who does not have to bother with appearance, was quite a contrast to the elegant office-executive-dressed Eriksson, whose days to live alas, it has just been announced, are numbered. His presence on the Maltese screen at this time must have provided a poignant moment. I found Kel Matsena convincing as Raheem Sterling as were Lewis Shephers as Delle Alli, Crystal Condie as Alex Scott and Denzel Baidoo as Bukayo Saka but there were quite strong performances all round. One question I would pose: do you have to be familiar with the football events in question to appreciate the play fully? Does it assume a lot of the spectator? And the spectre of Sven Eriksson serves as a constant reminder, certainly not intended by Graham when writing the play, nor by Goode when he originally directed it for the National Theatre, that there are infinitely more important things in life than football. My solidarity and thoughts are with Sven in this most difficult moment.

One thing this play does, as far as Gareth Southgate is concerned, is confirm that he is meticulous at everything surrounding the team. I am not so sure about his tactical nous. The play strengthens my view that he would make an excellent director of football with the dug out manager role to be left to someone more tactically astute. This however has little to do with the play. There are gestures in this direction concerning tactical naivety in the post mortem conversations .

Unfortunately the chance to view this and other plays directly from the UK and Broadway at a snip comes with a price, especially for reviewers. One is not provided with the whole cast which makes it difficult to mention the names of actors playing certain characters. There can be two actors cast in a specific role, for instance Harry Macguire, Fabio Capello and Pippa, and therefore it becomes risky to determine who of the two plays the character on the night.