Patrick Marber finds the back of the net with this dark comedy about corruption in semi-pro football
However much schadenfreude you experienced as Fifa’s dementedly venal house of cards started to fall down, you can only imagine it was felt tenfold down at the NT. Patrick Marber’s dark comedy ‘The Red Lion’ – his first new play proper in a decade – is about how the tendrils of corruption in football extend to the very bottom. But what might have felt like a sardonic grumble about the English game now feels bigger than that, a perfect allegory for the beautiful game’s inability to live up to its own lofty ideals.
Set in the changing room of a semi-pro club – unnamed, though the titular red lion is its symbol – the production is directed by Ian Rickson with typical meticulousness, notably the gorgeous sound design by Ian Dickinson, which fills every scene with unsettling ambience: the thrum of old pipes; the whisper of rain.
Club manager Kidd, played by the eternally wonderful Danny Mays, is an archetypal wheeler dealer. His arrival has helped the moribund team claw the league via a dirty, unromantic game, and any serious talent that comes his way is flogged to boost the club’s profits and stave off his own disastrous debts.
Just as pitiful is Yates (Peter Wight), the backroom man. A former star of the club – he led them to minor FA Cup success – a brief spell as a manager revealed his lack of killer instinct, and they were demoted after two seasons, leading to his dismissal and a breakdown. He’s been taken back in a supporting role, but he has nothing in his life bar the club and a fanciful dream that it can be an honest success.
Or is it fanciful? Suddenly young Jordan (Calvin Demba) walks into their lives, a formidable player who won’t play dirty. Yates sees redemption; Kidd sees pound signs.
Marber’s play is at its heart a dark, tender and beautifully wrought study in male desperation: just as the club is on the brink, so are these men, and it is hard to condemn any of them for what they do, even Mays’s blithely dodgy Kidd. It’s also funny, mostly again due to Mays, who has the best lines and electrifies them with his berserk physicality: often he resembles less a human being, more a swarm of eels in a suit.
Marber doesn’t preach, but there’s no getting away from the fact that ‘The Red Lion’ is also about how money has led football away from the ideals it enshrines. If a minnow like Kidd can bottom feed on trickles of dirty cash, and if the allegations against Fifa are proven true, then what chances that everything in between is clean?
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