A provocative but deeply flawed play is poorly served by its production in this return airing at the National Theater of “Sing Yer Heart Out For the Lads,” the Roy Williams drama first seen two seasons ago as the inaugural production of the now-defunct Loft studio space. (That was a Trevor Nunn new-writing initiative that vanished with the arrival at the National of current artistic director Nicholas Hytner.)
In normal circumstances, the Cottesloe would seem a studio auditorium all its own, as it is the smallest of the NT’s three venues. As reconfigured by designer Hayden Griffin for helmer Paul Miller’s diffuse take on the text, however, a normally cozy venue now seems as large as your average football pitch (soccer field, to Americans), with the result that the passions coursing through the play are either pumped up or all but lost.
That’s too bad, since “Sing” has a far from melodious story to tell. It’s one that bears rehearing in the current runup to Euro 2004, which is merely the latest event to send this football-obsessed nation into a frenzy — and into the sort of social and ideological collision course described here.
Williams sets the action in a pub in working-class south London on that October day in 2000 when England played Germany (and lost) in the all-important World Cup qualifier. In the watering hole presided over by the tough-talking Gina (an engagingly feisty Tanya Franks), there is more to lose than just a goal or two.
As various locals congregate to watch the match on a large-screen TV that has some initial trouble coming into focus, Williams tightens his grip on that other England, which gets written about in (and largely fuels) the tabloids but is almost never put on stage — a xenophobic, fearful land where patriotism quickly bleeds into nationalism and racist tensions aren’t the only societal ills that kill.
The respectable face of some truly appalling attitudes is embodied by Alan (Paul Moriarty), who dominates the play with the sort of white man’s speechifying that sounds impressive until you step back to listen to what he has to say. (“If they want to practice their black culture and heritage, they should be allowed to do it in their own part of the world. By all means,” he says, trying to sound generous in his separatism.) Alan speaks, tendentiously, for a highly specific England, while people inhabiting virtually every other point on the spectrum listen in, awaiting their chance to talk back — or turn violent.
The remaining assemblage includes two sets of brothers — one white, one black — with each pair conceived in schematically contrasting terms. Lawrie (Jake Nightingale) is the white aggressor whose thuggish tendencies are barely kept in check, much to the chagrin of Alan, who wants his purging couched in more elevated terms. And if Lawrie, with a previous arrest to account for, is an embarrassment to younger brother Lee (Steve John Shepherd), a policeman, so is the battle-weary bus conductor’s son, Mark (Ray Fearon), at odds with his firebrand of a brother, Barry (Ashley Walters), who argues that being black in modern-day Britain means you have to be more “English” than anyone else.
What being English might actually mean — let’s hope it’s about more than mangling “God Save the Queen,” as these football supporters are seen to do — is Williams’ ceaselessly intriguing topic, and it’s frustrating to see such import frittered away in a play that tends to stop dead for various instances of interpolated didacticism building to a melodramatic conclusion crucially muffled in the staging.
The play would seem to depend on the intimacy — congestion, even — associated with match days in most London pubs, but the capacious set places most of the Cottesloe audience seemingly miles away, with a handful of spectators scattered across the stage itself so as to amplify a naturalism that, in truth, seems awfully forced.
So, too, do several of the performances, with an ostensibly lived-in feel that seems applied from without rather than felt from within. British rapper Ashley Walters, as Barry, makes a decidedly underpowered human powder keg, and he all but throws away the second-act opening speech about Posh Spice that delivers quite a punch on the page.
As the neighborhood tough guy whose treatment of Gina’s son, Glen (Ryan Ford), sets the conclusion in motion almost from the start, Ryan Regis isn’t half as scary as Nightingale’s all-too-real yob: the sort of disaffected Englishman who would gladly sing his heart out for the lads if he hadn’t long ago misplaced his soul.