Dear England at the National Theatre review: James Graham scores again with this thrilling football drama

Back of the net? James Graham’s play about Gareth Southgate’s stewardship of the England football team is a brilliant fusion of sport and art, exploring our nation’s character through our national game. And at the National Theatre, to boot.

Rupert Goold’s production is pacy and dynamic and Joseph Fiennes uncannily captures Southgate’s distinctive diction and his careful blend of confidence and diffidence.

At times it’s necessarily schematic: there’s a lot of sporting history, a lot of biography and a lot of hurt packed into the three-hour running time. But this show is witty, clever and at times heart-in-mouth exciting enough to win over even those who don’t care about football. I know, because I was one of them, until Southgate’s squad finally made me see what my wife and all my friends had been banging on about for so long.

It begins with the young Gareth missing his fateful penalty against Germany at Wembley in Euro 96, then flashes forward 20 years to him succeeding the ousted Sam Allardyce as England’s caretaker manager. This creation myth looms almost as large as England’s only World Cup win, over Germany, in 1966.

Southgate believes the obsession with victory and the resulting shame and rage at constant defeat (usually on penalties), suggests there’s something rotten in the game he loves. Likewise there’s division everywhere: he took over in the year of the Brexit referendum.

Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate in Dear England (Marc Brenner)
Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate in Dear England (Marc Brenner)

So he picks a new, young squad: Harry Maguire, Deli Alli, Bukayo Saka and solid, stolid Harry Kane; plus goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and the rest. He hires psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) to get them to start talking about their fears and feelings, and the story they want to tell. He suggests a three-act arc which the play covers: the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Euro 2020 (delayed to 2021 by the pandemic) and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The bare expanse of the Olivier stage, topped by designer Es Devlin with an illuminated ring that recalls a halo, a centre circle and the Wembley Arch, powerfully expresses the isolation and exposure of the football pitch. It’s dotted with plywood lockers on which shirts are displayed like trophies or targets.

Scenes of Southgate teasing out emotional honesty and team spirit from his players are punctuated by training montages and confrontations with his subordinates and the FA’s Greg Clarke. Journalists, Morris dancers and newlyweds weigh in on England’s prospects. The first half closes with an unbelievably tense, mimed rendition of the 2018 penalty shootout with Colombia.

The second half opens with a carnivalesque celebration to Fat Les’s Vindaloo, but things swiftly darken when Covid arrives, then the racist backlash against footballers taking the knee and the dying of many ideals in Qatar. We see Theresa May and then Boris Johnson and Liz Truss fail at penalties far more damaging than those missed by Rashford, Sancho and Sterling in 2021.

There’s not much space for deep characterisation but Will Close and Josh Barrow are very funny as Kane and Pickford, Darragh Hand and Kel Matsena quietly moving as Rashford and Sterling.

There’s a goalmouth scramble at the end to fit in the Lionesses’ 2022 Euros win and controversies over Qatar. It doesn’t matter. This is a thrilling piece of work, popular and political as Graham always intends his plays to be, and – appropriately – a consummate team effort.

National Theatre, to August 11;