It was only in 2015 that Patrick Marber’s love letter to non-league football ‘The Red Lion’ received its world premiere. It opened in the National Theatre’s newly refurbished Dorfman auditorium and broke five years of writer’s block with a trickle that has since become a waterfall: last year alone Marber adapted ‘Hedda Gabler’, directed Tom Stoppard’s ‘Travesties’ and revised his ‘Don Juan in Soho’ for the West End.
So Marber’s dominance over London’s biggest stages makes this reduced, small-scale revival – which premiered at Newcastle’s Live Theatre earlier this year – somewhat surprising. But it also feels like this play, directed by Max Roberts, has found its ideal size.
Relocated to the north east, it sits very comfortably in Trafalgar Studios’ squashed smaller space. There’s something about the rough-and-readiness of Traf 2 that matches the semi-professional, everyone-mucking-in world of the play.
Through three characters – ageing club acolyte Yates who washes the kit and has devoted his life to the team; smarmy, business-minded manager Kidd for whom turning a profit is the bottom line; and talented young player Jordan – Marber explores a clash of worldviews: romance versus realism, passion versus pragmatism. While Kidd thinks he’s trying to professionalise the club, Yates is worried that he’s killing what makes it great.
John Bowler’s Yates is a doddering old thing, visibly straining to pick up the piles of muddy shirts on the floor, and even if his delivery is a bit solemn and slow at times, he’s the play’s empathy-channelling heart.
In Kidd, Marber has created a cracker of a role which Stephen Tompkinson seizes on with clownish energy. He careers around the stage, eking comedy out of his lines and using the humour to hide his vulnerability – both he and the club are deeply in debt.
The production is best in its back-and-forth moments between Tompkinson and Bowler, who brilliantly build up their uneasy co-existence. Although it doesn’t hit the highly charged moments as well as it could, this tight-knit team finds the intimacy and complexity in Marber’s play that was missing from its premiere two years ago.