On the face of it, The Red Lion (Patrick Marber’s latest offering for the National) didn’t really seem the most obvious thing for me to watch. It’s set in a non-league football club, focusing on the manager (Kidd – Daniel Mays), kit man (Yates – Peter Wight) and up & coming new talent (Jordan – Calvin Demba).
So it may seem like it’s a play about football, but in actual fact football is just the setting, the context – a way of visualising the themes manifested in the writing. To me, The Red Lion is a study on loyalty, ambition & passion; all traditionally assets in ‘the beautiful game’, as well as helpful qualities for life in general.
The set is impressively authentic. A changing room takes up the bulk of the space, but off to the back you can just see the shower/bath area, complete with a toilet cubicle. Off to the other side is a corridor leading out to the pitch. It has a real ‘lived in’ feel to it, evoking memories of school PE lessons.
The three acts are set on Saturdays at noon, dusk & night, respectively – a beautifully subtle addition to the storytelling, helped no end by brilliant lighting design (Hugh Vanstone).
You could not ask for a better cast.
Calvin Demba portrays Jordan’s youthful enthusiasm with ease, whilst always hinting at the secret he’s hiding from the world – something he will come to regret. He is completely believable as a young man looking for a new start, doing something he loves.
Peter Wight as Yates is brilliant. You really get the sense, from the very beginning, of his total devotion to the club that he has made his life. His is an ultimately tragic tale, played so naturally and with a pure simplicity; you really do feel for him and empathise entirely with him in his desperate state.
Daniel Mays is utterly compelling. His role (Kidd) is arguably the centrepiece of the whole production. He is also a man in a desperate situation, though most of it (as it transpires) seems to be of his own making – it is testament to Mays’ performance that you do feel sorry for him on occasions, as he wheels & deals through life. This, coupled with his fantastic comic timing, makes it hard to take your eyes off him.
The Red Lion is a snapshot of life. Its themes are universal; being a football fan is not a requirement. So please, don’t let the football put you off – this is a truly marvellous piece of theatre that I would urge you to see for yourself.
It runs at the Dorfman Theatre until Wednesday 30 September.