The Red Lion, Trafalgar Studios

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I have no interest in football, or any other sports for that matter. It’s not for lack of trying, what with growing up in a middle America that reveres sporting ability above all else. So I approach plays about football with caution, wary that my prejudices could sway my judgement. Fortunately, the tempestuous story of two ideologically opposed, minor league football men and the young player caught between them has little to do with the actual game and has a compelling, emotional narrative.

Patrick Marber’s script sings with a euphoric vernacular that approaches spoken word at some points, and a needly sparseness in others. Though excessively dense, it’s a sensory pleasure. The story is slow to build, but there is a naturally driving tension between the middle aged manager and elderly kit man who used to play for the club in its glory days. They have radically different views of the sport, and when they find a brilliant new player, they clash over how to manage his career. These smaller confrontations build in intensity until a devastating ending douses the passion and fight that’s been wizzing about the small space for the previous 90 minutes. Some scenes plateau and start to stagnate though, and this is a story that doesn’t have to be quite as long as it is.

Patrick Connellan’s design is a faithful recreation of a low-end changing room. Painted brick walls, nondescript benches and well worn cupboards indicate this is not the flash world of the premiere league, or anything other than naturalism. It’s a functional and precise set with a sturdiness that will outlive the foibles of the characters.

There are some moments of overacting from one of the performers that is reminiscent of a mad King Lear, though the wordy dialogue Marber gives him works towards excusing the heightened performance. Most exciting is Dean Bone as young player Jordan, a man driven by desperation and poverty and love to play football. His turn-on-a-dime temper is fierce and surprising.

Marber’s language is this production’s gift, but some light trimming would give it a touch more pace without detracting from the story’s tragic elements. It’s a strong work, with only a few minor changes needed to really make this story about the Beautiful Game, and the men that love it, even more resonant with those who care about football and those that don’t.

The Red Lion runs through 2 December.

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