There is some corner of a playing field that is forever England in the new play by Patrick Marber (“Closer”), his first in more than eight years, which turns a dysfunctional non-league soccer club into a flat-footed state-of-the-nation metaphor. Premiering at the National Theater, “The Red Lion” argues that the beautiful game — and, indeed, Britain — has sold off its soul and asset-stripped its integrity, and it’s a timely message in the wake of FIFA’s implosion. However, see-through symbolism isn’t the half of its problems. Hackneyed, self-indulgent and poorly constructed, it’s only saved from a drubbing by charismatic performances from Daniel Mays, Peter Wight and Calvin Demba.
It’s odd enough that there are only three of them. Except for the ten team uniforms laid out, you’d think that the small-town club known as the Red Lions consisted entirely of its manager Kidd (Mays), kit man Jonny Yates (Wight) and promising new recruit Jordan (Demba). The rest of the team never walk through the changing room, and indeed only one even gets a mention from the manager. It starts to look like Marber’s cheating, ignoring his chosen situation for his artistic scheme.
In that, it’s fairly straightforward: a battle for control of the club and, specifically, its teenage wunderkind, a once “wayward” youth with a shot at success. In one corner is the washed-up, honest old-timer Yates, a man with the club crest tattooed by his heart, who takes Jordan under his wing. In the other, Kidd, suited, booted and modelling himself on real-life manager Jose Mourinho, who sees the sport as a business like any other.
It’s idealist versus realist, heart against spreadsheet. As Jordan’s talent reveals itself, the crux of the matter is this: keep the kid and play him to push the club forward or sell him on for a decent profit. To complicate matters, Kidd stands to benefit, with a £7,000 ($10,500) bung on the table, and Jordan’s using steroids to overcome a longstanding knee injury.
Of course, with its heraldic leonine crest, this isn’t just a football club. It stands in for Britain: a relative minnow reliant on and reliving its former glories. A lucky and lucrative cup run 30 years earlier paid for the main stand, which will soon be sold off as real estate. Yates is all that’s left of the good old glory days, while Kidd’s a price-of-everything-value-of-nothing kind of bloke, professional but fickle and out for himself. The board, meanwhile, holds sway, selling off every asset to the highest bidder, a feeder club in a feeder country.
Jordan, then, is the future, caught between two paths: an honest kid who may yet be swung by personal greed. However, that old injury — acquired by baseball bat — and the habit to compensate suggest that there’s no way up and out without cheating. Inequality puts honest success out of reach.
What Marber does brilliantly is find the minutiae of both place and people, as you’d expect of a man who once part-owned the real-life Lewes Football Club. True, they may mythologize the game like Greek poets hymning their heroes, too eloquent by tenfold, but each man is absolutely steeped in the sport, from its minor matchday rituals to its high-definition memories. In Ian Rickson’s meticulous production, you can almost smell the mud caked onto the walls of Antony Ward’s changing room, with its chipped wooden benches and its peeling white paint.
It’s a familiar place, but they’re familiar people too: the cast of a thousand sport stories. We know crooked managers eventually get their comeuppance and those that live for the club, die by the club’s decision to terminate their contract. We know that steroidal sportstars fail drugs tests, and Marber blows a decent plot twist by showing us Jordan’s usage too early.
The three actors can’t reinvent these wheels, but Mays, the greatest mug in British theater, shows you Kidd’s stupidity and his shame. He’s not a bad man, but one who falls in line with corruption and, quite literally, flaps his way through. Wight, stubbled and exhausted, wears the weight of the world on his shoulders and crumples quite brilliantly, while Demba tenses with the violence that he’s tried to control.