Review: Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre, London

by Jim Keaveney

‘Big Sam’ Allardyce has been sacked as England manager after his decision to provide some ill-advised financial advice is caught on camera in a sting operation by the media. His replacement is the unassuming England Under 21 Manager and former England player Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes, reprising his role from the original run). Southgate’s goal is to ‘get people smiling again’ – an ambition taken on by James Graham. But it’s not just smiles Graham seeks to deliver in Dear England, which transfers to the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre following a successful run at the National earlier this year, he also brings his prowess for politics to football in the same way that Southgate sought to. The twin ovals of Es Devlin’s set creates a feeling that this is all playing out in a stadium, perhaps even under the Wembley arches.

Fiennes produces an unmissable performance as the England manager, replicating Southgate’s mannerisms without impersonating them – despite the obvious physical similarities between the two. He delivers Southgate’s Dear England letter – abridged and revised by Graham for the stage – as if a Shakespearean soliloquy and brings heart and humility to the role. You really feel the weight of Southgate’s famous 1996 Euro penalty miss in his performance. While other characters don’t quite have the same time or space to find depth given the substantial cast many of whom play multiple roles, there are still tremendous performances across the cast. In particular, Will Close is tremendous as Harry Kane, bringing humanity to a player often ridiculed for being boring.

While Fiennes and Close stay on the right side of mimicry, other characters are brought to one-note life in almost Spitting Image style – particularly for its political targets. Boris Johnson is all hair, hands and jaw while Theresa May is a bent back and shuffling steps. Still, these are only flashes of farce amongst the more evenhanded exploration of what it means to be English, how collective trauma can manifest within a team and how stripping away the faux-masculinity of a group of men can help them to live without fear.

But that duality – a joint ambition to unashamedly entertain while holding clear state-of-the-nation intentions doesn’t fully work. There is a significant question mark over whether it fully realises the latter, even if there is no doubt about how entertaining the play is – racism and hooliganism in football are touched on only briefly and there is a sense that Graham wants us to feel that England has been healed through Southgate’s action fails to unpick the tensions that remain. But though Dear England is maybe not quite state-of-the-nation stuff but it is full of joy and hope.

Dear England is at the Prince Edward Theatre until 13 January 2024.

One thought on “Review: Dear England, Prince Edward Theatre, London

Comments are closed.