1. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerJoseph Fiennes (Gareth Southgate)
  2. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerAdam Hugill (Harry Maguire)
  3. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerJoseph Fiennes (Gareth Southgate)
  4. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerDarragh Hand (Marcus Rashford)
  5. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerKel Matsena (Raheem Sterling) and Will Close (Harry Kane)
  6. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerWill Close (Harry Kane) Ebenezer Gyau (Bukayo Saka) and Kel Matsena (Raheem Sterling)
  7. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerJoseph Fiennes (Gareth Southgate)
  8. Dear England, National Theatre, 2023
    Photo: Marc BrennerWill Close (Young Gareth Southgate)
  • Theatre, Drama
  • National Theatre, South Bank
  • Recommended


Dear England

4 out of 5 stars

James Graham’s new play is a wildly entertaining romp through the reformation of the England men’s team under Joseph Fiennes’ pitch-perfect Gareth Southgate


Time Out says

‘Dear England’ returns to the National Theatre in March 2025. This review is from June 2023.

Now onto its fifty-seventh year of hurt, the capacity of the English men’s football team to be the focal point of ruinous national self-mythologization is well documented. As such, a play about the squad’s resurrection under Gareth Southgate feels like a potentially hubristic idea – dangerously overhyping a gifted man who still hasn’t taken home any actual silverware. 

However: ‘Dear England’ is written by James Graham, a playwright who has made genuinely classic work out of such esoteric subjects as the quiz show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, and the Labour whips office during the 1970s. Unlike the England team, his form is so impeccable that you kind of have to trust that whatever he has planned is probably going to work. And with ‘Dear England’, he’s hit the back of the net once again.

Reuniting Graham with Almeida boss Rupert Goold (following last year’s musical ‘Tammy Faye’ and 2017’s Rupert Murdoch drama ‘Ink’), ‘Dear England’ essentially works because Graham and Southgate are interested in the same thing: why is the England men’s team burdened with such high expectations? And what do those expectations do to the psychology of both the team and the nation?

Helpfully, Southgate’s penalty miss against Germany in Euro ‘96 is the perfect embodiment of England’s problems. Goold’s widescreen production starts off with a flashback to it, and when we first meet him, it’s come to define Southgate’s life. Maybe there’s no blame anymore, but it’s the thing he’s most famous for, and a potent part of the self-loathing national myth about the team not being able to win at penalties. 

Uncannily captured by Joseph Fiennes, the mild-mannered ‘Gareth from Crawley’ is not, of course, a classically inspirational leader in the Hollywood biopic mould. And therein lies much of the appeal of ‘Dear England’: Southgate is never presented as perfect or a genius, but as a decent, ordinary, but driven man. That last part is the key. What makes him extraordinary is his attunement to failure. He senses there’s something wrong with the psychology of the England team that nobody has ever been able to articulate, and he can’t let it go. He’s not a machiavellian schemer. But he’s likeable and kind and then he has a gut-level understanding of England’s faults that he pursues remorselessly. 

Importantly, it’s an extremely fun show, and essentially up for a laugh, celebrating the foibles of our national sport rather than getting self-important about them. Some of the turns are extremely funny, notably Will Close’s Harry Kane – as affable as he is inarticulate – and Gunnar Cauthery’s pitch-perfect Gary Linekar. There’s no literal ball kicking, but Ellen Kane and Hans Langolf’s taut choreography and Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons’s overwhelming sound design mean the football scenes are truly thrilling when they come, especially the penalty shoot-out against Columbia. There is an unreasonably amusing joke about ‘Three Lions’. And it was certainly the most boisterous National Theatre press night I’ve ever been to - there was practically an ovation at the interval, and a well-judged bit on the Lionesses brought the house down.

It does have a more serious core, though, which revolves around Southgate bringing in Gina McKee’s wary psychologist Pippa Grange to diagnose the team’s mental malaise. Graham never lays it on too thick, but nonetheless, he gets in some fascinating theories about the interlinking of the national team and the national psyche, how each failed penalty shootout has become part of the story of the country as a whole, and how Southgate’s young team are a continuation of 150 years of team history – there’s no such thing as a fresh start for England, only fresh ideas. And there’s hurt beyond penalties too: the team’s decision to take the knee before games stems from the hurt its young Black players feel at racist crowds. The idea they should simply suck up the chants and move on is clearly antithetical to how Southgate’s reformed team works.

On that note, the extremely well-cast ‘Dear England’ is excellent at reminding you just how young the footballers are (or were) – the fact our nation’s hopes and dreams rest with a group of not fully formed young men in their early twenties is often overlooked, but here their vulnerability lingers.

In short, it’s a tremendous piece of entertainment. Does it always ring true? It‘s a tricky one: it’s broadly accurate, but as it’s not a literal recreation of events, it sometimes feels like Graham has gone a bit Aaron Sorkin on us in the name of entertainment: Wayne Rooney responding to being dropped from the squad with a lengthy allegory about stew, or Southgate going off on one about dark matter. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Southgate’s tenure as England manager isn’t over – this account of events could date a lot depending on how things go in Germany next year; in not knowing how his story ends, the play feels a bit baggy and open-ended.

Still, that’s the price we pay for new writing about actual living, breathing people, that addresses events from the last three years, that doesn’t dither around timidly waiting to see how it all turned out. It feels like a story that is actually about our times, set in our actual reality, about a subject most of us at least have an opinion on – a rarity in the theatre.

‘Dear England’ is a big-hearted, technically dazzling celebration of football first and a critique of it second. If it was the other way around I wonder if it might feel a little more like a play for the ages. Graham’s best work is so improbably brilliant it carries the audacious rush of putting ten past the other team’s keeper. ‘Dear England’ is maybe more like a comfortable 3-1 – but who isn’t happy with that?


National Theatre
South Bank
Rail/Tube: Waterloo
£20-£89. Runs 2hr 50min

Dates and times

You may also like
You may also like
London for less