It feels pertinent to preface this review with the disclaimer that I am not a football fan, nor do I profess to understand the so-called ‘beautiful’ game, and grew up without a team, in a family that was at best sceptical about the sport’s relationship with toxic masculinity and nationalism.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Having said all of that, it is without hesitation that I throw the full weight of my enthusiasm behind Dear England, James Graham’s emotional and sprawling love letter to the England men’s team, told through the lens of its moving-and-shaking current manager, Gareth Southgate, played by a charming and supple Joseph Fiennes in a totally knockout performance.

Southgate’s legacy resides largely in having changed the way the team communicate with each other, applying such radical concepts as honesty, inclusivity and care to an environment where showing vulnerability is traditionally seen as weakness, and the conventions of camaraderie and hierarchy are deeply entrenched.

Graham’s script deftly weaves this thread of mental health into a production that unfolds its emotional intelligence with a powerful fluidity. Rupert Goold, in his third outing with Graham’s writing, connects the sprawling array of swift, banterful dialogue, shape-shifting technical transitions, and dazzling ensemble set-pieces as the cast spin around Es Devlin’s circular set, with its three-way alternating concentric rings. What appears at first to be a simple and stripped-back playing space swiftly activates its theatrical potential, augmenting the scale of the story with the transporting grandeur of Ash J Woodward’s immersive video projection, and introducing a series of wooden boxes that move between being lockers, doors and symbols of the lineage of players that came before.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Starting with Southgate’s own trauma at having missed a key penalty in the ‘96 Euros’ semi-final, his appointment twenty years later as interim manager and subsequent recruitment of psychologist Pippa Grange (Dervla Kirwan) kicks off the play’s exploration of avoidance, national healing, and what it means to lose. We then follow the team’s new direction, with all the highs and lows of building momentum and fundamental changes to how players interact with their fans.

The performances are exceptional across the board, with a front-footed assuredness that nails the caricatures of well-known personalities like Harry Kane (Will Close), Gary Lineker (Nick Barclay), and Theresa May (Miranda Heath) with humour and panache. With a multi-roling cast of twenty five and Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf’s ecstatic use of movement, the show possesses all the dynamism of a musical — only without the songs. We are however treated to a selection of retro classics, from Robbie Williams to The Verve and of course, ‘Sweet Caroline’. The production is bursting with references, famous faces, and historical touchstones that parade their sense of nostalgia without for a second losing the clarity of its direction.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Dear England is a play for our conflicted and troubled country, exploring the complexities of fandom and national pride in such a joyful way, whilst allowing space to recognise the racism inherent in many fans’ response to ‘21 penalties loss, and the misogyny of a nation that largely overlooked its female team — until they brought it home in ‘22. The story carries such weight but travels across time, geography, and theme with a playfulness that says so much without ever feeling heavy-handed or stiff. Instead, it’s a beautifully clear, rousing, and celebratory exploration of football that has the power to reach the hearts of even the most uninitiated audience members, and give them the chance to feel it all, from the inside out.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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