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Review of The Red Lion, Live Theatre, 8th April 2017 currently at the Trafalgar Studios, London until 2nd December 2017 by Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

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Ceinwen has worked as a Probation Officer, a Mental Health Social Worker and Practice Educator. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and writes short stories and poetry. She has been published on web magazines and in print anthologies. These include Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Alliterati, Stepaway, Poets Speak (whilst they still can) Three Drops from the Cauldron, Obsessed with Pipework, Picaroon, Amaryllis Algebra of Owls, Write to beCounted, The Lake and Riggwelter. She completed her MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in August 2107 and will graduate in December 2017.

 

 

 

Review of The Red Lion, Live Theatre, 8th April 2017 currently at the Trafalgar Studios, London until 2nd December 2017

The Red Lion is a play about football, football and so much more. I know little about the beautiful game but I am familiar with Live Theatre and the quality of its productions. These include plays that went on to wide acclaim such as The Pitman Painters and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour to recent debut successes like Jess and Joe Forever. This busy regional theatre is a powerful and exciting presence in the North-East and beyond.

Patrick Marber, author of The Red Lion, is a respected playwright, actor and director who crafts thoughtful and challenging work. ‘I think I write serious comedies,’ he said in the Guardian in July 2015 as The Red Lion was premiered at the National Theatre as a three-act play. Now, Marber has rewritten it specifically for performance at Live Theatre and in a Q&A at Live, he said he wants to the slightly shorter play to be viewed in a single sitting to intensify the experience.

Whilst the play is set in the cut-throat world of semi-professional football but it is actually about the human condition. People struggle, are subject to the machinations of the powerful and are forced to witness the death of their own ambitions.  The minimal stage set of the team changing room with massage couch, first-aid box, electricity and running water is stark and functional. Here, those with long memories, passion for the game, their club and their community rub shoulders with players with dreams and ruthless men looking to make a quick profit. This set contrasts effectively with the charged interactions between the characters.

Stephen Tompkinson, John Bowler and Dean Bone comprise the three-person cast. Stephen Tompkinson is no stranger to Live Theatre and last starred here in Faith and Cold Reading in 2011. John Bowler, an experienced actor on stage and in film and television, makes his first appearance at the venue. Dean Bone made an early career appearance as Blue in David Almond’s play, Savage, at Live Theatre in 2016 and his impressive performance established him as a promising newcomer. Max Roberts, Artistic Director, directs with his usual acuity.

The characters are Yates (Bowler) the veteran kit man, Jordan (Bone) a young wannabe footballer, and Kidd (Tompkinson) who is the middle-aged manager. In one sense, they can be taken to represent three ages of man; each character’s chronological age affecting his perspectives in addition to his disposition. The relationships between these damaged men undergo mercurial and seismic shifts delivered through taut, painful humour and intense drama. For Yates ‘the club is the legend’ and he accuses Kidd of being ‘so desperate to get on you’re not here’. Yet there is a crazy symbiosis between the two men who love and hate each other in equal measure. They are both excited by the possibilities that the talented Jordan represents. Kidd says to Yates ‘Say it again, that beautiful thing that you say.’ Yates replies ‘He can play.’ ‘Say it again,’ demands Kidd and Yates repeats the incantation. To mix metaphors, Yates is the heartbeat of the piece, Kidd the tempest and Jordan the breaking wave. Their ensemble teamwork allows the baton of dominance to pass between them with balletic, finely choreographed precision and ease.

The play opens with Yates tending the kit, tidying, ironing with the air of an officiating priest. Kidd, the club manager, swaggers in and sallies with Yates, reveling in his status as ‘boss’. They begin to discuss Jordan and his hunger for selection.  Jordan joins the team but his troubled background and apparent Christian values cause some difficulties. As the plot unfolds, other pressures become evident. Kidd has been thrown out by his wife, is in debt, homeless and estranged from his children. Jordan has an old leg injury that threatens his fitness. Yates drinks too much and remains traumatised by the time when he was cast out from his beloved club. The immediate action is augmented by Kidd’s storytelling with astute and acid mimicry. He conjures other characters and events for the audience that involve his wife Karen, Ken the groundsman, Robbo the poached player and Mr. Parker the referee.

The central conflict revolves around the question of Jordan’s professional signing to the club. Both Kidd and Yates want to control Jordan and make him their own. Kidd wants to use him to turn a profit and Yates wants to bind him to his mentorship to reprise his own lost dreams. Jordan becomes increasingly agitated and angry as his sense of trust is shattered. The drama peaks as shenanigans and secrets are revealed.

Marber is familiar with the world of non-league football as a club director and his writing is sure-footed and confident. He uses humour to effectively to highlight key moments and emphasise harsh truths. The action is set over three Saturday afternoons and the continuity of the single-sitting magnifies the drama. Each actor commits to their role and the dynamic exchanges between them are fluent and credible. Tompkinson makes every gesture, every inflection matter. He segues from macho to camp, tender to harsh, wise to confoundingly immoral. Bone is authentic and moving as the stressed youngster who is fighting to survive and make good. He is authentic and unapologetic, arrogant and vulnerable, by turns. Bowler’s quiet, almost lyrical, outpouring of grief towards the end of the play is skillfully rendered. It could be an epigraph for our current times.

The Red Lion highlights unsavoury aspects of the present-day football; the greed and mercenary practices that wrench a club from its community roots and distort the spirit of the game. Beyond that, the play is almost Shakespearean in its reach as it reflects on the consequences of flawed, selfish behaviours combined with the blind interventions of fate. Jordan’s final conversation with Yates is surprisingly gentle and dignified. It avoids sentimentality and suggests some cautious optimism to counter-weight Kidd’s view Every cunt for himself, it’s a bleak bloody landscape.

This play is high-octane and edgy and could possibly benefit from a greater range of emotional tone and the use of sustained silences. It also makes an incongruent detour into surrealism when the end of a match is signified by kit showering onto the stage from above.  However, these are minor concerns. The audience accepts them in the context of an energised, meaningful and plausible performance. The Red Lion will remain with me for a very long time.

 

Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon

 

 

 

 

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